The Cost of Winning: Coming In First Across the Wrong Finish Line


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Sports Odds. Get the latest odds on all the top sports. For as bold and irreverent as Challenge Court is, Supreme Court is tuxedo tennis. We use the players not only to market and design our products but also to set a positive example for the sport. Andre Agassi, for example, has been integral in attracting a lot of young players to the game—and a lot of young players to Nike.

Like Michael Jordan in basketball, Andre transcends the sport of tennis. They put them in too many tournaments and, for most kids, burn them out quickly. That gives tennis a bad image and sends the wrong message to kids who might want to take up the game. McEnroe talks with groups of players and their parents and tells them what pro tennis has been like for him and what they should expect.

The message is to keep tennis fun and in perspective.

High-Performance Marketing: An Interview with Nike’s Phil Knight

Take basketball. Air Jordan had two great years, and then it fell on its face. So we started asking ourselves, are we trying to stretch Air Jordan too far? As we thought about it, we realized that there are different styles of playing basketball. Not every great player has the style of Michael Jordan, and if we tried to make Air Jordan appeal to everyone, it would lose its meaning.

We had to slice up basketball itself. Force shoes are more stable and better suited to the aggressive, muscular styles of David Robinson and Charles Barkley. Whenever someone talks about Nike basketball, they think of Air Jordan. But we actually have those three distinct segments, Air Jordan, Flight, and Force, each with its own brand—or sub-brand, really.

Each has great athletes representing it, a complete product line, shoes and clothes that are tied together. Instead of one big glop, we have the number one, the number two, and the number four brands of basketball shoes. The people at Nike taught my partner, David Kennedy, and me how to advertise—and how not to advertise. Back in , when David and I first started to work on the account, Nike made it very clear that they hated advertising. They were obessed with authenticity, in terms of both the product and the communication. And they had a sense of what was cool.

We try to make honest contact with the consumer, to share something that is very hip and very inside. As the world gets more dehumanizing, people want the trust and familiarity of a long-standing relationship. Building that relationship requires a brand with a personality and advertising. Personality is the difference between the surrogate monkey parent and the real thing: the surrogate might have the nutriment, but everything else is missing, and the relationship never forms.

In the business world, brand-building creates the personality that allows people to bond.

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The Nike brand, for instance, is very complex. Advertising creates the environment for the relationship. To me, it takes the place of the human contact we once had as consumers. In the beginning, people had relationships with the shopkeeper, and any advertising simply supplemented that relationship. Today things are so complex that advertising needs to embody that relationship by making contact in more than a superficial way. The process of creating brands and relationships is also the process by which you create the values our culture operates on, so it has a huge ethical component.

The ethical dimension makes our work seem like much more than the movement of goods and services. And it can be scary. I remember sitting here one night with campaigns spread out all over the place getting ready to present to Nike the next morning. I realized then what a big, big stage this is and how important it is to be responsible for what goes on here.

Being provocative is ultimately more important than being pleasant. Our awareness of the ethical issues is also a factor in the positive response to Nike ads. The general public can sense when something is destructive or at least not very positive. Tennis is another good example. We have a very focused category that has been built around the personalities of John McEnroe and Andre Agassi.

We created the Challenge Court Collection—very young, very anti-country club, very rebellious—and we became the number one selling tennis category in the world. So instead of diluting what Challenge Court stood for, we created a second category within the tennis framework called Supreme Court, which is more toned down. Each of those categories stands for something distinct. Have you exhausted the list of things that fit under the Nike umbrella? The core consumer in fitness is a little different from the core consumer in sports.

Fitness activities tend to be individual pursuits—things like hiking, bicycling, weight-lifting, and wind surfing. And even within the fitness category, there are important differences. We found that men do fitness activities because they want to be stronger or live longer or get their heart rate or blood pressure down. Their objectives are rather limited. But in , we acquired Cole-Haan, a maker of dress shoes and accessories.

Cole-Haan is part of Nike, Inc.


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In fact, when people talk about Nike, the TV ads are practically all they want to talk about. But we became a billion dollar company without television. Our first TV campaign was for Visible Air, which was a line of shoes with transparent material along the midsole so consumers could see the air-cushioning technology. Having gone through the painful experience of laying people off and cutting overhead in the mids, we wanted the message about our new line of shoes to hit with a punch, and that really dictated TV advertising.

The Visible Air launch was a critical moment for a couple of reasons. Visible Air was a hugely complex product whose components were made in three different countries, and nobody knew if it would come together. Production, marketing, and sales were all fighting with each other, and we were using TV advertising for the first time. There was tension all the way around. We launched the product with the Revolution campaign, using the Beatles song. We wanted to communicate not just a radical departure in shoes but a revolution in the way Americans felt about fitness, exercise, and wellness.

The ads were a tremendous hit, and Nike Air became the standard for the industry immediately thereafter. There are 50 different competitors in the athletic shoe business. Why do people get married—or do anything? Because of emotional ties. That approach distinguishes us from a lot of other companies, including Reebok. Our advertising tries to link consumers to the Nike brand through the emotions of sports and fitness. We show competition, determination, achievement, fun, and even the spiritual rewards of participating in those activities.

By doing new things. Innovation is part of our heritage, but it also happens to be good marketing. We saw the company as having a great competitive advantage because we had a great product at a great price. And it worked a little bit. But what really made things pop was when we innovated with the product. We need a way of making sure people hear our message through all the clutter. Bo Jackson and Michael Jordan stand for different things. Characterizing them accurately and tying them to products the athletes really use can be very powerful.

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We test the concepts beforehand, but we believe that the only way to know if an ad works is to run it and gauge the response. Although some of the calls will be negative, complaints tend to be in the great minority. Our basic philosophy is the same throughout the business: take a chance and learn from it.

What are some of the risks? The Hare Jordan, Air Jordan commercial that aired during the Super Bowl represented a big risk from both a financial and a marketing standpoint. It showed Michael Jordan teaming up on the basketball court with Bugs Bunny. It could have been too silly or just plain dumb. The only criticism we got was from the National Stutterers Association for using Porky Pig at the end.

Humor is always a risky business. Take our advertising to women. We produced some ads in that we thought were very funny but many women found insulting. They were too hard edged. We got so many complaints that we spent three or four years trying to understand what motivates women to participate in sports and fitness. We did numerous focus groups and spent hundreds of hours on tennis courts, in gyms, and at aerobics studios listening to women. Those efforts paid off in our recent Dialogue campaign, which is a print campaign that is very personal.

The text and images try to empathize and inspire.

Even there it was risky to use such an intimate voice in the ads, but it worked.

The Cost of Winning: Coming In First Across the Wrong Finish Line The Cost of Winning: Coming In First Across the Wrong Finish Line
The Cost of Winning: Coming In First Across the Wrong Finish Line The Cost of Winning: Coming In First Across the Wrong Finish Line
The Cost of Winning: Coming In First Across the Wrong Finish Line The Cost of Winning: Coming In First Across the Wrong Finish Line
The Cost of Winning: Coming In First Across the Wrong Finish Line The Cost of Winning: Coming In First Across the Wrong Finish Line
The Cost of Winning: Coming In First Across the Wrong Finish Line The Cost of Winning: Coming In First Across the Wrong Finish Line

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