Is Nike becoming uncool?
The New York Times asked that once unthinkable question yesterday, and used Tiger Woods as Exhibit A.
Nike’s underlying business is healthy, of course, and revenues are up robustly. But it’s entirely dependent on being perceived as cool. Once an organ as fuddy-duddy as the Times suggests you’re not cool, then that’s a crisis for any brand.
Nike’s most recent Woods ad, which was intended to highlight the golfer’s come-back-ability, instead garnered criticism for suggesting that his personal failings are somehow fixed because his game got better.
The Times’ case against Nike revolves mostly around the fact that, as an older, larger company, the brand moves more slowly than it used to. Also, many of the cool, attitude-laden marketing tricks it invented have been borrowed by newer brands like Red Bull.
But the Woods ad is just one of a string of recent stumbles for Nike involving high-profile athletes. Consider:
When the Woods scandal first broke in 2010, Nike aired this weird ad in which the voice of Woods’ late father spoke to the golfer as he stared impassively at the camera:
The ad only drew attention to Woods’ failings and attached them to the two Nike logos displayed within it. I rated it one of the worst ads of the year.
More recently, Nike distanced itself from Olympic runner Oscar Pistorius, who has been charged with shooting his girlfriend. They made this unfortunate ad together:
Nike also ditched Lance Armstrong when he turned out to be a world class liar rather than a world class cyclist:
Prior to that, Nike was endorsed by runner Suzy favour Hamilton, who most recently was discovered working as a Las Vegas escort. Here’s her ad:
None of these incidents are Nike’s fault, of course.
But the company is failing to navigate the modern media environment. Before the internet, athletes’ scandals and peccadilloes would be mentioned briefly in the newspaper and then often forgotten.
Now they’re endlessly picked apart on blogs, Tumblr gifs, memes, YouTube parodies and on and on. Reebok discovered this recently when it was forced to fire rapper Rick Ross for writing a song about rape.
Reebok reacted to that issue the same way Nike reacts to its athletes’ troubles. It waited several days — more than a week in Ross’s case — to see which way the wind was blowing. Only after it became clear that everyone else thought the performer’s behaviour was unforgivable did the company act.
This slow, morals-free reaction, in which policy is based not on ethics but on foot-dragging and expediency, hurts brands in the long run. It makes them look like what they’re trying not to be: large corporations filled with uncool lawyers.
It all suggests a new playbook is needed, one that is not reliant on huge, flawed athlete stars to carry the brand. Delivering that, of course, is easier said than done.
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