September 01, 2021
Whenever I catch a glimpse of the famous Nike Swoosh, images of passionate athletes fill my head. From GOATs like Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods and Tom Brady to lesser-known Michelle Carter. Their personal stories of hard work and of overcoming great odds inspire me to get off the couch. Just do it, right?
And I see the Swoosh all over social media.
But is Nike really winning the social media game? As the NFL season kicks off, it’s safe to say the outcome is far from decided. At times, Nike makes great plays especially in storytelling. Then Nike will fumble, setting off a swath of negative consumer sentiment. Can you hear the boo birds in Philly?
Both offer powerful lessons for marketers.
On Nike’s upside, a new report on fashion brands achieving social media success from BrandTotal, a strategic marketing partner with the CMO Council, shows Nike leading in paid share-of-voice (SOV). The lead is like Secretariat in the Belmont Stakes with Nike boasting 20% SOV compared to Adidas with only 12% SOV. This is probably why I’m seeing the Swoosh so often on my social media feeds. Nike scores on its opening drive.
Further, Nike is a big player in social media’s dark ads, that is, social advertising hidden from public view and micro-targeted to specific audience segments. “Dark marketing” is often a huge part of brands’ social strategies, BrandTotal says. Nearly 70% of Nike social media ads are dark.
Dark ads are often conversion-oriented ads, whereas public ads tend to be awareness-oriented ads. If your brand wants to tell a story, it makes sense to do so publicly and make it available to everyone. If your brand wants to drive sales, then lean toward a hyper-targeted dark ad strategy.
BrandTotal also suspects brands use dark ads in an attempt to avoid negative sentiment in the public domain. Yet this didn’t save Nike from receiving a tongue-lashing from consumers in the comment sections on Nike’s dark ads.
What’s the problem? Earlier this year, a Congressional report found household brands, including Nike, Coca-Cola and Calvin Klein, were suspected of relying on forced labor in China’s Xinjian Uyghur Autonomous region. The word “Uighurs” (an alternate spelling of “Uyghurs”) mentioned in a negative context rose 798% in volume, BrandTotal says.
This kind of blowback isn’t new to Nike. In the late 1990s, Nike came under fire for using child labor to produce shoes overseas. The difference today is that everyone has a bullhorn with social media and can air their grievances quickly and easily.
This has led to the practice of “purpose-driven marketing,” a concept describing how brands can bond with customers based on shared interests. It dovetails with the idea of corporate social responsibility. For brands that value customer sentiment, purpose-driven marketing matters.
What does Nike do well? I’m going back to Nike telling some of the boldest stories in marketing.
“In the world of fashion, people have become used to ultra-skinny models and famous sportspeople,” BrandTotal says. “Nike has completely broken this mold, and a great example of this is its ‘Play New’ campaign. This ad features Olympic shot-putter Michelle Carter, who carries an inclusive message of hope and love for one’s body.”
Not all stories hit their mark. Who can forget the 2010 Nike television commercial of an embattled Tiger Woods, along with the voice of his late father, talking about his personal problems as he prepares to return to golf? Cringeworthy.
But even this speaks to Nike’s value proposition. To wear Nike gear is to be part of an athletic community that values competition. You’re expected to reach for the thrill of victory at the risk of the agony of defeat, as sports journalist Jim McKay famously said.
This may be Nike’s most enduring lesson: Marketers should take risks when telling stories that stir real feelings and inspire people to lace ‘em up.
“While pushing the boundaries, Nike is also cognizant of its brand and runs many campaigns that reinforce that timeless Nike feeling,” BrandTotal says. “This [Michelle Carter] ad shows off the iconic Nike styling, along with an irresistible sneaker.”
Tom Kaneshige is the Chief Content Officer at the CMO Council. He creates all forms of digital thought leadership content that helps growth and revenue officers, line of business leaders, and chief marketers succeed in their rapidly evolving roles. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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