Nike’s most successful failure yet

You don’t have to work in the sports industry to know that Nike and adidas have a long, historic, and occasionally bitter rivalry. This was put to the side at 08:20 on Saturday morning in a single tweet: “Congratulations @EliudKipchoge on such a courageous run”.Courageous is correct. Kipchoge had just run a marathon in 02:00:25 as part of Nike’s Breaking2 project – the fastest time yet. It is staggering. That’s an average speed of just over 13mph. That’s 04:36 per mile. It’s 02:32 faster than the official World Record (more on which later).

It’s also – crucially – 25 seconds short of what he had aimed for. It was fast, but also a failure.

The Breaking2 project was Nike’s attempt to break through the 2-hour marathon time barrier. Kipchoge – the Olympic Champion – was the spearhead, supported by fellow runners Zersenay Tadese and Lelisa Desisa.

The project has drawn as many critics as it has plaudits. The former dismiss it as an outlandishly expensive marketing exercise for the new Zoom Vaporfly Elite. The latter laud the exploration of the limits of athletic ability.

The scale of Nike’s investment matched that of the challenge. No gain – no matter how marginal – had been overlooked:

• The location – Italy’s famous Monza racecourse – had been chosen for its low, flat, sweeping profile and few bends
• The attempt started at 05:45 when temperature was at an ideal 10˚C
• Kipchoge, Tadese and Desisa ran behind a group of elite pace runners in arrowhead formation ahead of them to reduce wind resistance
• The group ran behind Tesla pace cars with giant clock timer displays, reducing resistance even further
• Kipchoge was drinking a new carbohydrate-rich drink, delivered to him by helpers on mopeds
• All three were wearing the new Zoom Vaporfly Elite shoe, quoted as giving as much as a 4% increase in running economy

Nike are also rumoured to have paid each runner up to £770,000 to skip both the London and Berlin Marathons – official IAAF events – a fraction of what I imagine the production and media budgets must have been.

The return? 5.2 million people tuned in to watch the live stream on Facebook (I was one), with 6 million watching a short film as Kipchoge finished (I was one of those too). My various social media feeds featured more running content than they did around the London Marathon. Time will tell how many shoes sell.

However, the amount of editorial coverage I’ve seen rivals that which followed Red Bull and Felix Baumgartner’s Stratos project. It has become the latest instalment of the truly iconic, global sports marketing event and it’s interesting that once again it was a brand event.I had a conversation with a friend and fellow long-distance runner in the office this morning and we questioned why this is happening. Why do Nike have to create a bespoke event to make this happen? Why not attempt it on the world’s greatest sporting stage – the Olympics?

The reason, we agreed, is fairly simple. Human beings are naturally curious and the Breaking2 project had one simple goal: to run a marathon as fast as possible. It was a moonshot.

Crucially, Nike and Kipchoge didn’t set out to break Dennis Kimetto’s 2014 World Record – set in Berlin. The techniques I have listed above made the attempt ineligible. Instead, they wanted to run a marathon as fast as possible, not as fast as the constraints of official rules & regulations would allow.

The success of Breaking2 has shown that this will not be the last event of its kind – despite its failure. Nike themselves are discussing a similar event working with female athletes and even average athletes. adidas – rekindling the rivalry – are working on their own attempt at the 2-hour barrier. This may be start of the next sports marketing arms race.

I think Breaking2 has proven that a brand marketing campaign can successfully co-exist and support genuine athletic endeavour with genuine authenticity. The challenge for Nike is to progress; what is the next step? Where do they go from here?

The broader challenge is ensuring that brands undertaking the same challenge maintain their focus on simple goals that capture the imagination in a way that everyone understands, no matter the scale.

The Sochi 2014 Marketing Olympics, Part 2: Brand Activation Highlights

Having written yesterday about the LBGT controversy and the latest developments in IOC sponsorship, today I'm turning to the key brand activation strategies and stories around the Sochi Games.

Play Russian

Unlike a summer Olympics or a FIFA World Cup, the Winter Olympics doesn't bring with it a big, global Nike campaign. Sochi 2014 is lower-priority and lower-spend than the World Cup for Nike, because in terms of worldwide interest, the winter Olympics is nowhere near as big as a World Cup, as illustrated by this Twitter heatmap.


Nike's Sochi playbook has strong echoes of Vancouver 2010: focus on the host market; fusion of Nike attitude with national identity; hockey at its core (Nike sponsors the Russian, US and Canadian hockey teams). 'Play Russian' features Nike's key Russian endorsees across a range of sports, led by Russian hockey icon and Games poster boy Alex Ovechkin, as well as a very cool website.
Of the other sportswear brands, the Jamaican bobsled team qualifying for Sochi was good news for Jamaican NOC sponsors Puma, but even better for adidas, when adidas-branded pictures of the Cool Runnings movie instantly flooded the web; and Under Armour has had a Games to forget, first owing to the withdrawal of Lindsey Vonn, and then by making a ton of the wrong kind of headlines about the performance of its speed skating suits.

No Logo?

The IOC famously prides itself on making the Olympics as advertising-free as possible, but the snowboarders' gear in Sochi has been branded like no Olympics before, with the brands involved pushing the IOC's regulations to the limit. This drew this observation at the start of the Games from our head of consulting Carsten Thode:

Carsten Sochi

Subsequently brandchannel followed up on the same subject with this very good piece: expect to see this particular loophole narrowed, if not closed, by the time we get to Pyeongchang 2018.

There was also the curious case of Alexey Sobolev, aka the Pussy Riot board artwork that wasn't, and the cellphone number that was. Or something like that.

And while we're on the subject, check out this very cool interactive guide to the gear of the Games by the NYT.    

The Return of the Brand Police

Games officials doing daft things as 'brand police' - supposedly to protect the Games' sponsors, but actually doing the absolute reverse by creating negative stories - is a thing again in Sochi.

In London in was LOCOG's mishandling of local butchers and bakers, and Seb Coe's infamous 'Pepsi t-shirts' Today programme interview. In Sochi it's officials covering up journalists' laptop logos.




Sochi USA

What happens in the USA - the biggest and most valuable Olympic TV market - around every Games is always worth watching.

This time around of course, Sochi followed hot on the heels of the Super Bowl, and Bloomberg took this fascinating look at the two events as TV properties and the numbers behind NBC's deal with the IOC, estimating that NBC will make a profit of around $100m from Sochi on revenue of $1billion, from the sale of 11,000 - yes, you read that right, eleven thousand - ads.

No surprise then that NBC put a lot of effort into marketing the Games upfront to the US consumer as well as to Madison Avenue (note the prominence of Lindsey Vonn by the way).

The sales pitch to IOC and USOC partners worked. As SportsBusiness Journal reports, fifteen Olympic sponsors are running ads on NBC during the Games, almost all of them featuring new, specially-developed creative.

But the jury is out on NBC's ratings, even though the overall numbers are pretty impressive.


Breaking New Ground

A few sponsors' campaigns - or elements of them - that have caught my eye in the last few weeks.

Albeit I may be biased (Synergy works for BMW in the UK) but for me the BMW campaign has really stood out from the other USOC sponsors for its depth, ambition and integration, as well as for telling and leveraging the bobsled story very skilfully. 

P&G has evolved its successful 'Thank You Mom' campaign, which debuted at Vancouver 2010, into Sochi, and in the week before the Games I enjoyed how P&G fused branded programming on NBC (a show called 'How To Raise An Olympian') with social content - check out my Storify. But - albeit it's still generating very high engagement - how long can P&G keep 'Thank You Mom' going? One more Games? Two?

I've also really enjoyed a lot of Visa's work. 'Everywhere' feels very natural in an Olympic context, some of the creative has been absolutely sensational, and the use of Vine has been original and fun. Here's another Storify of some of the work.

I wrote a few weeks back how much I liked MegaFon's MegaFaces, the success of which is evident from how many consumer pictures of the activation are now out there.

But my favourite on-site activation at Sochi is definitely Molson's passport-activated beer fridge.