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.