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Nike Wins Gold

I was at a five-year-old’s birthday party on this last Sunday of the Olympics. A bunch of the parents were sitting around in the shade of the rented bouncy house while our children literally bounced off the walls from too much cake, when somebody brought up that Find Your Greatness commercial with the jogging kid and said they thought it was the best commercial of the Olympics. This sparked a brief debate, not about whether it was the best spot of the Olympics or not–everyone seemed to agree on that–but whether Nike was the official Sportswear Partner of the games. The crowd was about evenly split between believing it was Nike or… some other sportswear company. Some people said Reebok. Some people said Adidas. One guy even thought it might be K-Swiss, although everyone laughed at him. They all remembered being barraged with lots of sportswear commercials; they just couldn’t remember much beyond the fact that they were sportswear commercials.

Since I follow branding (probably more closely than I do the Olympics), I knew that Adidas was the official partner, which was actually announced in 2007. But, apparently, five years, hundreds of millions of dollars and the exclusive rights to use the Olympic name, logo and references to medals hadn’t been enough to win the gold for Adidas. After all that effort, Adidas hadn’t been able to get its message across to even a third of the people attending the party–at least, not in the face of the story Nike has been telling with its Find Your Greatness campaign. That, everyone remembered. They talked, in particular, about the jogging kid and the little boy on the high-dive board, about how moving those commercials were. And as they debated it, more of them conceded that Nike probably was the official partner.

From a story perspective, it’s not that hard to see how Nike sprinted past Adidas. Adidas has been running a great-looking campaign called Take the Stage that featured lots of great-looking people (like David Beckham and Katy Perry) doing great-looking athletic things and partying, all set to cool music. The spots have been majestic, cinematic and big. Better still, from a story perspective, they seemed to touch on an authentic conflict between sportswear’s function as equipment for competition and its form as stylish fashion. But Nike’s story has been much more compelling. Instead of focusing on a conflict of sportswear, Nike has remained focused on an essential conflict of sport–triumph of the human spirit versus victory at all cost.

Sport is a funny thing. On the one hand, it’s play. Sport is powerful because it brings us together, teaches us teamwork and good sportsmanship. When we come together to play, we are enriched and uplifted. It doesn’t matter whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game and that you choose to play it. Sport is about triumph of the human spirit. On the other hand, sport is competition. It’s a fierce battle in which opponents struggle to best each other. Only one side can take the top spot, and everyone else must lose. Sport is about victory at all cost.

Part of the magic of sport is that weird collision between everybody wins and only the best can win. Nike is built on that collision and has spent decades telling that story. As a brand, Nike has roots in the popular running movement where the slogan “Just do it” seems to suggest that we’d all be better people if we just made an effort, just got up on our feet, just did something with no finish line in mind and no victory larger than a personal sense of accomplishment. That’s a note that resonates loud and clear in Nike’s current Find Your Greatness campaign. But Nike also came out of high-level competition, with its founders pouring shoe treads on waffle irons to give athletes the fraction-of-a-second advantage that could make the difference between first place and everything else. In this context, the slogan “Just do it” takes on a completely different meaning. Just do it. Just win. Don’t make any excuses. Don’t give less than everything. And don’t come in second or you’re the loser. You only have to wind the Olympic clock back a few turns to arrive at the 1996 Atlanta Summer Games, where Nike drew so much fire for its campaign tag “You don’t win silver, you lose gold”.

Nike has never been afraid to embrace the conflict of sport, to own the fact that it’s just a game and it’s not just a game. When they’re at their best, they don’t gloss the conflict over or pretend it doesn’t exist–they throw their arms around it and use it to power their story. Winning is a powerful human motivator, but we can be very conflicted about what it means. Nike has always been about winning, in all its depth, complexity and emotional messiness. That’s what has made so many Nike commercials so memorable. While other brands frequently make commercials about sportswear, Nike consistently makes commercials about sport. That’s where they find their greatness and that’s what powered them to their gold-medal victory in these Olympic games.

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