The Innovation 50: How Nike, the archetypal marketing-led company, is still innovating

The Innovation 50: How Nike, the archetypal marketing-led company, is still innovating

Ever since it made a disastrous move into casual shoes in the mid-1980s, forcing a rethink at the company, Nike has risen from strength to strength. At that point, it shifted its focus away from product design and manufacturing and onto the consumer and the brand. It was a move that has propelled it to unassailable marketing giant status ever since.

Incredibly, for such a major established company, its marketing is still ground-breaking enough to be an Innovation 50 company. Perhaps that’s because, as its co-founder and chairman Phil Knight has explained, it has become a marketing-oriented company rather than a manufacturing-focused firm over the years.

More, much more, than running shoes

Nike was started in 1962 as Blue Ribbon Sports distributing running shoes for a Japanese company. The name Nike was only adopted in 1978.

The then humble running shoe was transformed by Nike using technology and that gave it its first phase of growth. But its fortunes were transformed by the emotion pumped into its shoes and apparel by marketing.

Admirer Marc Allenby, Creative Director, Harvard, says, its marketing combines courage, an understanding of consumer motivations and authenticity.

Marc says, “Nike always has such a big voice in culture. They create a conversation and stand up for what they believe in.

“They can sway a generation – in fact, they’re almost like a political party in their own right. If Nike ran for The White House, I wouldn’t be surprised if they made it,” says Marc.

Courting controversy, taking the knee

With phrases like ‘Just Do It’ and ‘There Is No Finish Line’ entering our subconscious, Nike’s marketing has achieved much more than a few memorable taglines.

Its 2018, its controversial ‘Dream Crazy’ campaign by Wieden+Kennedy not only won the award for outstanding commercial at the Creative Arts Emmys the following year, it was also highly controversial.

Starring Colin Kaepernick, the former NFL quarterback who knelt during the US national anthem in protest at racial injustice in 2016, it promoted the slogan: ‘Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything. Just Do It.’

President Donald Trump even criticised Nike and the ad.

More recently, during covid lockdowns, its ‘Never Too Far Down’ campaign has championed resilience.

Iconic sporting moments have been used during the campaign to show how athletes like Serena Williams, Tiger Woods and other athletes have come from seemingly overwhelming odds against them, to show inner strength until they ultimately prevail.

Its uplifting message is part of its ongoing ‘You Can’t Stop Sport’ campaign.

Marc says, “Nike can impact the way we think. They seem to think, ‘If we think it’s right, we’ll do it’. So for example, in support of Black Lives Matter, they’ll put out a press ad featuring a black athlete. It’s incredible what they achieve.”

The lesson? If you have a great product, never underestimate the power of what marketing focused on the consumer and the brand can achieve.