Trends & Features

Balancing the risk and return in marketing campaigns

September was a big month for Nike. Eliud Kipchoge’s world record at the Berlin Marathon showed that his Breaking2 effort was not entirely due to the corporation’s ability to manufacture the perfect conditions.

I’m sure you also didn’t miss Serena losing her temper and dignity along with the US Open Final in New York, or Tiger Woods returning to the winner’s rostrum at the Tour Championship.

This was just a couple of weeks after Colin Kaepernick, Lebron James, Odell Beckham Jnr and others joined Kipchoge and Williams in the swoosh’s instantly controversial “Dream Crazy” ad.

Let’s start with the undeniably good. Kipchoge dominated the Berlin Marathon on his way to 2:01:39, taking a seventy-eight second chunk off the previous official world best, and clocking only seventy-four seconds slower than his “unofficial” run around Monza last May. Despite not having anyone to run with for the last 15km, let alone pacemakers supporting his every stride as per the set-up attempt, Kipchoge proved that he is incomparable over 26.2 miles, not just currently, but ever.

On the negative side, Serena Williams, described in Nike’s video spot as “a girl from Compton… becoming the greatest athlete ever” had two hours to forget, losing a bad-tempered finale of the last slam of the year, during which she was warned repeatedly and ultimately docked a point, then a game, effectively resulting in her straight sets defeat to Naomi Osaka.

Whether her arguments around the umpire’s decisions are valid or otherwise, the champion’s grace was evidently missing from what turned into an embarrassing saga for Williams.

Somewhere in the middle, Tiger is back. With five years between his 79th and 80th PGA Tour wins, he’s been hitting the front pages more often than the back (or the green for that matter), but victory at the TOUR Championship caps a return many doubted they would ever see and hints at more to come.

Each of these sporting occurrences have resulted in myriad column inches and page hits, some featuring Nike directly, others just in the regular sponsorship reference or image. Which of these are good for the brand and which aren’t? Which are careful marketing decisions and which are just coincidence or part of life’s rich tapestry?

Firstly, the spot itself. It’s an epic piece of video and narration that captures the mindset of many in 2018. It challenges, both in purpose and in content. The characters featured have all overcome great struggles in their pursuit of sporting excellence, and their stories are told to inspire and to align with consumers beliefs.

By definition, a spot like this cannot shy from controversy. If you stand for something, you stand against something else

There are difficult themes contained within, touching on prejudices towards disability, race, gender and sexuality. Each of these are positive when set within the context of the spot, and ultimately contribute to the story of “Dream Crazy”. The message is that you can overcome your challenges, whether they are physical or cultural, to become an unlikely success.

The controversy that Nike have clearly accepted, or more likely sought, almost entirely surrounds Kaepernick himself.

Reports of consumers burning Nike shoes and apparel after the ad was released were alarming (especially those people still wearing said shoes and apparel), but illustrate the feeling that Kaepernick generated with his stance, or lack of stance, on minority oppression (and more specifically alleged police brutality) in the US. This appears to be a calculated risk on Nike’s part. Some commentators have suggested that risk was minimal when you consider that Kaepernick’s jersey is still in the top fifty sellers even when he doesn’t appear on any NFL team roster. He clearly has a significant following.

The three sporting events have garnered less attention than the ad (26m views on YouTube alone), but we can only hope are just as significant. Kipchoge’s efforts have brought the subtwo- hour marathon into the public consciousness akin to the attention around the fourminute mile barrier in the 1950s. The man himself comes across as understated, uncontroversial but not without character. A traditional marketing dream.

Conversely our other two heroes have spent time as anti-heroes too.

Serena is more often a force for good, but her behaviour during the US Open Final brought her more criticism than support. It’s dangerous for a brand to be associated with a volatile athlete, but despite, or maybe because of, her attitude and desire to overcome adversity and to challenge (perceived or actual) oppression will still win her fans, however poorly it is verbalised.

Similarly with Woods. I had to check that he was still on Nike’s books after this new tournament win. Whereas many of his highprofile endorsements walked away from him following his relationship, alcohol and motoring issues, Nike didn’t, and now they are starting to reap the reward for that loyalty. It’s tough to stick with a star when they lose their way and bring as much negative publicity as positive, but the viewing figures for Tiger’s 2018 tournament win far exceeded any comparable championship during his time in the wilderness. It’s clear that he brings fans and attention to golf in a way that no other individual can.

At first glance, there is considerable risk involved in each of these decisions for a marketing team. But for a bold brand, not frightened of making a noise, maybe the reality is different?

Kaepernick, Woods, Williams and certainly Kipchoge have great box-office power, maybe the greatest in each of their respective sports currently. By courting a little controversy and enduring some negative sentiment for a short period, each have emerged stronger and with their sporting reputations intact or even enhanced after these adventures.

Isn’t that down to the strength of their underlying stories? The baseline of each of those sporting greats is overcoming obstacles, beating oppression and succeeding spectacularly.

Just as a flawed character can add a human element to an individual, if a marketing story is strong enough, it can survive a negative chapter or two.

Building your marketing campaigns on a scandalous headline with no foundation is risky. Associating with authenticity through genuine story-telling rarely is.

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