When you’re asked to think about Nike, what’s the first thing that pops into your head?
Interestingly enough, I’d hazard a guess that you didn’t say shoes, shorts or singlets.
Was it their famed slogan ‘Just do it’? Was it an image of somebody working hard to achieve their dream, despite all of the odds being stacked against them? Or, was it a famous athlete like Michael Jordan landing a basket?
The reason for this is that Nike is more often associated with selling a vision, a dream and aspiration rather than a pair of shoes.
It’s for this reason that their digital marketing, and indeed their entire marketing strategy has been so wildly successful.
These days, the brand is valued at approximately 34.8 billion US dollars. To get here, however, it spends around 3.75 billion dollars on marketing each year.
It is most successful with its footwear, and actually holds 48% of the athletic footwear market in the United States – a staggering reach.
So just how have they achieved this and how has their marketing strategy come into play?
1. Selling a vision
Nike ads, no matter whether they are shown as display ads on YouTube, Facebook or Instagram, or even displayed on traditional media like the television, rarely mention the product the brand is trying to sell.
Instead, they tell a story that binds the customers to the brand itself.
It’s the old case of creating publicity to get people talking – which is something Nike is incredibly good at doing.
They use a lot of emotional branding.
A typical Nike Ad, for example, would show an individual who is fighting against some kind of diversity, overcome this and succeed.
It doesn’t matter whether this villainous figure is societal norms or pressures or something internal like laziness or self-doubt, because it always ends in victory.
These people are either famous athletes already recognisable, or else ordinary individuals that the audience can relate to.
They tend to also target minority groups in sport – women, those with disabilities, young people, people of colour, people from low socio-economic backgrounds and the like – and show how with enough perseverance and effort, these people can also conquer their fears and achieve their dreams.
In all of these ads, you’re likely to see the Nike branding throughout, but you’re much less likely to actually see a particular product being sold.
An example of this emotional advertising was it’s 2012 Find Your Greatness campaign that was shown on TV and display advertising across the Internet.
The campaign had an incredibly human element to it, there were famous athletes and cheers – just an ordinary boy running along the road, while an inspirational speech is overlaid explaining that we have only been taught to believe that greatness is something you’re born with.
In other campaigns, such as the 2020 ‘Witness the Power of Sport’ campaign, Nike references social movements like the Black Lives Matter protests and climate change. They market sport as a powerful way of forcing social change, and as a space in which everybody is stronger when diversity is actively embraced and encouraged.
The You Can’t stop Us campaign referenced the coronavirus pandemic which effectively put an end to all of the world’s major sporting events. The brand relied on the power of hope, encouraging athletes and ordinary people to keep on working – suggesting that even when it seems hopeless, there’s a power within each and every person to keep on pushing and working towards this greatness.
These themes go through almost every single one of Nike’s video campaigns. There is always a mixture of famous and unrecognisable people, and the end is always triumphant or at least hopeful that there will be a triumph.
It’s almost impossible to watch these ads and not feel inspired to lace up your running shoes and get out on the road.
The clever part, of course, is that the subliminal messaging of the campaign suggests that you’ll only achieve the level of greatness or success that these athletes have, if those running shoes and clothes that you’re pulling on are Nike.
And Nike has most definitely been opened, has been given various awards for their advertisements (Emmy award twice for best commercial, Advertiser of the Year in 1994 and 2003).
2. Making it happen
Alongside Nike’s advertising which sells this ‘aspirational vision’ and hope, the brand markets themselves as socially responsible and conscious with their own choices.
This hasn’t always been the case, of course.
In the late ‘90s, Nike came under fire from many for its unethical practices and alleged use of sweatshop and child labour. It was facing boycotts and protests, and all of this only happened 20 years ago or so.
Since then, the company has done a lot to turn all of this around and is now acknowledged has having some of the most rigorous corporate social responsibility initiatives in the world.
Publishing detailed reports that outline the pay scales of employees in all areas of the supply chain, as well as listing the factories where all of its goods and materials are produced was one aspect.
They have repeatedly been industry leaders when it comes to addressing the impacts of the fast fashion industry on the climate – particularly the use of water in dyeing and manufacturing clothes. They have implemented cutting edge technology that means clothes can be fully manufactured without using any water at all.
In addition, Nike has pledged that it will eliminate hazardous chemicals from its global supply chain by 2020.
All of this might seem a little disjointed from its marketing strategies, but the company then engages in ethical branding which encourages the sale of its products by marketing them as ‘guilt-free’ purchases for the consumer.
There are still questions, of course, about whether or not Nike is as good for the planet as it says it is, but largely it is agreed upon that the brand is moving in the right direction.
Then, there’s the other element which is the social responsibility and justice programs Nike engages in with its profits.
Every financial year, 1.5% of the company’s pre-tax income is invested in making a positive impact in communities.
Some of these funds have been put towards training sports coaches, linking young people with mentors, funding sports bras for young women and creating programs that encourage female participation in sports.
3. Social, social, social
Unsurprisingly, with a message as motivational as the one Nike is spreading, they have a large following across their social media accounts.
They are active across all of the major social media platforms, and actually have over 318 individual profiles that cater towards specific target markets or products.
This diversification allows each of their profiles to share more curated content, thereby ensuring they are more popular with their audience.
One of their campaigns targeted their social initiatives, The Chance – in 2010 Nike targeted young people to win Nike Academy for a year. It is noted that the Chance helped promote Nike and increased their fan-base. Participants created more than 17,000 Facebook pages which reached an additional 5.5 million fans. Furthermore, 2,000 user-generated videos and 28,000 player posts were created and the brand received 3.4 million YouTube views.
On Facebook, Nike has separate Facebook pages for each of its product categories. This includes golf, skateboarding and Nike+ Run Club, as well as two football pages.
The brand uses Facebook sparingly for its organic social output. Since Facebook changed its algorithm earlier this year it appears the company is playing to the rules of the platform and only using Page posts for its bigger campaigns.
Many of their posts are of their athletes as they achieve great things. These tend to rack up a fair bit of engagement.
Their most-talked about activation, the Colin Kaepernick 2018 Just Do It campaign, is completely absent from Facebook – possibly due to the need to manage any bad publicity that could have arisen.
On Instagram, the brand is much more active and once again they have several accounts that post different content.
Their main account focuses on motivational content similar to their emotional branding that marks most of their advertising.
The high-quality imagery and video content the sports brand produces for its followers to consume is extremely popular and they often post pictures of athletes or other sportspeople.
On their main account, they have 143 million followers.
One of their more popular extra accounts is the Nike Running Club, which has 5.7 million followers and shares motivational content and products related to running.
They also have a Nike + application where users can share their own running tips and results. Sometimes these are then re-shared by the brand, allowing everybody to participate in the Nike community and vision.
This is part of a broader commitment to include everybody under the brand’s target audience, not just elite athletes.
However, there is another dimension to the brand’s use of social media, as they also use various platforms to respond to and engage with customer complaints and queries. They also congratulate customers who hit goals in their own sporting journeys.
Obviously, with Nike’s strategy focusing on emotional branding and developing trust of their company, they rely heavily on endorsements with some of the world’s major celebrities, and some pretty lucrative sports sponsorships.
They use these athletes incredible stories to feed back into their emotional branding – selling an inspirational story rather than a simple product.
In fact, they spend an absolutely incredible amount of money on these – around $3 billion a year.
They were an official sponsor of the 2016 Rio Olympics, despite previously skirting around actually paying for this and using creative marketing strategies that implied Olympics without seeing it.
Since 2018, Nike has been providing sponsorship for jerseys and apparel for the NBA league, making it the first time there has been a company logo on the uniform.
On Social media, too, Nike is unafraid to collaborate with some big brands. Nike teamed up with conversational AI platform, Snaps, to create a Facebook Messenger Bot for its Air Jordan brand. The bot delivered content from the Air Jordan blog and Jordan.com and enabled users to shop, read and engage in two-way conversations with the brand.
Then, of course, they engage in the usual influencer marketing techniques.
With the kind of money Nike has, it’s unsurprising they are able to get big names such as Serena Williams, Tiger Woods, Colin Kaepernick, LeBron James, just to name a few.
Then there’s Nike’s more unexpected influencer partnerships, like father and son co-hosts Dan and Lincoln Markham of the popular YouTube channel, “What’s Inside?” In collaboration with Nike, the two created seven sponsored videos documenting the inner workings of Nike headquarters. The series was a huge hit and expanded Nike’s reach beyond their typical audience.
It’s also a very successful form of content marketing as it is interesting and valuable to the audience, without being super ad-like.
- Nike doesn’t try to sell products, it sells aspirations, dreams and stories, not only for famous athletes, but for all individuals who face adversity in their loves and sporting journeys.
- They emotionally brand their campaigns and fit them into current social justice movements such as Black Lives Matter and climate change.
- They have moved in the past few years to position themselves as ethically and socially responsible.
- They have separate facebook, Instagram and Twitter accounts for their various different demographics allowing them to create curated content.
- Nike has lucrative influencer collaborations and sponsorships with the world’s biggest athletes. They created documentary style videos that proved wildly popular with their audience as it allowed them to see inside the Nike headquarters.