SPORTS WARS: Sports marketing has become so big, it’s hard to tell one brand from another. Nike, for many years the market leader, is rethinking its strategy. But can a US giant really be credible in a market dominated by football?

Until recently, Nike looked like one of the most successful advertisers in history. Together with its global agency, Wieden & Kennedy, and Simons Palmer in the UK, Nike had enjoyed many years at the top of the sportswear market. But nothing lasts forever.

Until recently, Nike looked like one of the most successful

advertisers in history. Together with its global agency, Wieden &

Kennedy, and Simons Palmer in the UK, Nike had enjoyed many years at the

top of the sportswear market. But nothing lasts forever.

Endorsed by the brashest and baddest of sporting talent, Nike had

swiftly built itself a fearsome reputation, reinventing trainers and

sportswear as tokens of rebellion. Teenage boys, key figures in the

sales of kit, saw individualistic stars such as Eric Cantona, Charles

Barkley, Michael Jordan and Ian Wright wearing Nike and concluded: ’If I

spend pounds 100 on a pair of trainers, I too can have attitude.’

Rival brands were nowhere in sight. And Nike, established in 1964 by

Phil Knight, a former university track star and marathon-running shoe

salesman from Oregon, watched profits rocket throughout the early 90s:

orders for shoes and sportswear in 1995 stood at 35 per cent higher than

in the previous year.

Then in May this year, investors on the New York Stock Exchange

experienced a shock. Nike’s profit forecast for the second half of the

year looked considerably less sunny than usual. On 30 May, the company’s

shares dropped from dollars 76 to dollars 55.

Now Nike is considering axing its famous tag, ’just do it’, created by

Wieden & Kennedy in the mid-80s, and replacing it with a new line, ’I

can’. It is also thinking of awarding its other US roster shop, Goodby,

Silverstein & Partners, further assignments.

There’s similar upheaval on this side of the Atlantic, with the UK

incumbent, TBWA Simons Palmer, under pressure on its account as Nike

seeks ideas from WCRS and St Luke’s. As one US source said: ’They (Nike)

are trying to figure out everything. Are they with the right people, the

right agencies, the right categories? Everything is under consideration

right now.’

What’s the problem? Tim Delaney, executive creative director of Leagas

Delaney, which handles global advertising for Nike’s arch-rival, Adidas,

offers his diagnosis: ’The ubiquity of the (Nike) tick has gone against

the cachet of the brand. The tick was clever, but it’s backfired. Kids

don’t want to be part of their peers but individuals.’

Of course, Nike’s brand credentials remain impressive. But for the first

time in ten years, it faces strong competition. The principal competitor

is Adidas. Once the ultimate fitness brand, Adidas practically

disappeared from view in the 80s. Then in 1993 the ailing German company

was taken over by Robert Louis-Dreyfus, the former Saatchi & Saatchi

boss, who appointed Leagas Delaney to handle its worldwide advertising

Since then, the three stripes of Adidas have become the logo, not just

for children on the street and fans on the terraces, but even among yoga

enthusiasts in prosperous Notting Hill.

Robert Senior, who heads the Nike account at TBWA Simons Palmer, reckons

that Adidas has benefited from the retro fashion trend and by

emphasising hi-tech products such as the Predator football boot. But

advertising, he concedes, plays a key part too: ’Adidas’s tone of voice

has become more aggressive and confident, drifting into Nike territory.

Five years ago a poster like ’66 was a great year for English football.

Eric was born’ could only have been produced by Nike. Now you have to

ask if that is still true.’

Even Reebok, positioned until recently as a women’s fitness company

catering to the aerobics boom, has acquired new vigour. In 1992,

Reebok’s senior management decided to get Reebok ’on field’. They

focused on basketball, baseball, the Olympics and soccer. At the 1990

football World Cup, Reebok was nowhere. But by 1994, one in five goals

were scored by Reebok endorsers.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of football in the sportswear


Which is good news for Adidas. As a European brand used by footballing

giants since the 70s, Adidas enjoys considerably greater credibility

than the US-based Nike and Reebok.

Not that Nike isn’t fighting its corner. With the US sportswear market

saturated, Britain looks appetising: analysts insist there’s room for

growth. Nike spends a third as much on advertising in the UK as Adidas,

and three times as much as Reebok. As for niche soccer brands such as

Umbro, they could only look on in horror as Nike threw a reported pounds

40 million into contracts with top clubs such as Arsenal.

Then there are the blockbuster ads. For Nike, Wieden & Kennedy came up

with the ’good versus evil’ extravangaza, and Simons Palmer created the

more quirky ’parklife’ (in which the likes of Cantona play

Sunday-league football).

Reebok is also targeting football: last month, its new global

advertising director, John Wardley, appointed a global football agency,

Lowe Howard-Spink (Campaign, 31 October). Lowes’ board account director

on Reebok, Jeremy Bowles, explains: ’Football is so important. It gives

you credibility beyond the game.’ Other sports, such as running, can’t

do this: ’Running’s a more individual sport, there is not the same


In each of the past three years, Lowes has produced a soccer showstopper

for Reebok. First ’dream team’, which united Ryan Giggs with Sir Bobby

Charlton and George Best; then ’field of dreams’ with numerous

celebrities professing their love of football; and most recently the

animated story about Giggs, ’doppelganger’.

Despite the efforts of Nike and Reebok, Adidas continues to dominate

football. It controls 21.8 per cent of the market in football trainers;

followed by Puma (14.8 per cent), Reebok (11) and Umbro (5.9). The

mighty Nike, in fifth place, manages just 5.8 per cent, according to AC

Nielsen MEAL. Delaney claims: ’Adidas is genuinely passionate about

football. Nike is a big American corporate giant.’

Or is it that simple? Can ordinary punters really tell the difference?

In the past year, after all, Nike and Adidas have both produced

futuristic commercials about a ’good’ team battling against ’baddies’

(’good versus evil’ and ’the difference’).

And just to make the market more complicated, football is being

exploited by all sorts of companies, not just sportswear manufacturers.

With the 1998 World Cup in mind, they are all piling in. Coca-Cola, for

example, created a series of ads to exploit football mania with the

line: ’Eat football, sleep football, drink Coca-Cola.’ As Bowles says,

the challenge is on the sportswear giants to up the ante for the Paris

finals: ’We - Adidas, Nike and Reebok - will only have ourselves to

blame if we don’t go further.’

Against this background, an interest in several other sports remains

important. Last year Nike signed up the golfer, Tiger Woods; and Adidas

uses Prince Naseem Hamed, not to sell boxing boots but because Naz

possesses the right style. Paul Tredwell, who heads the Adidas account

at Leagas Delaney, explains: ’All advertising, regardless of sport, is

brand advertising.’

Simons Palmer’s Senior insists that there’s a difference between the

athletes endorsed by Nike and those picked by its rivals. ’Nike links

itself with athletes who excel in sport but they have to have something

to offer off the field as well as on. Bjorn Borg was quintessentially

not Nike, while John McEnroe was. Ryan Giggs (for Reebok) has moments of

pure inspiration on pitch, but what he contributes to mankind, I’m not

sure ...’

Some suggest that, in the rush to sign up stars, companies occasionally

settle for mediocre talents. Identifying the right players, Reebok’s

Wardley notes, is ’an art and a science’. Take Tim Henman, England’s

barely charismatic tennis hope, who was recently signed up by Adidas.

Leagas Delaney’s brief? To give the boy attitude. Critics hint that

Henman has little intrinsic cool, but Delaney fights back: ’You have to

deal with what you’ve got. We’ve made Henman a little cooler than he

was. He is much steelier than you would think.’

Why choose an Englishman at all? According to Senior, it’s not always

necessary only to use home-grown players: ’We ran a poster a few years

ago in the UK that captured the kids on streets. It featured the US

basketball star, Charles Barkley. No-one knew or cared who he was. But

it was clear he was a bloody good player who was physically robust.’

There’s another problem with Henman: what if he never wins the major

championships promised by the ads? Does this undermine the brand? ’You

can’t worry about that,’ Delaney declares. But there are dangers.

Remember Euro 96? Nike and Simons Palmer produced posters of Eric

Cantona and David Ginola, but neither of them was selected to play.

Senior defends his corner: ’It’s an occupational hazard. We picked those

players not because we thought they’d win but for the broader point they

made about sport and Nike’s connection with sport.’

Hmm, perhaps so. But in sports marketing more than in any other sector,

it’s crucial to back winners. In the US, the biggest athletics event of

the summer was a race between Donovan Bailey, the Olympic 100-metre

champion, and Michael Johnson, gold-medallist over 200 metres. The event

was dreamed up, promoted and staged entirely by the two athletes’ shoe

suppliers, Adidas and Nike respectively. The winner? Adidas.

As Nike reviews its advertising and marketing strategy this winter, one

thing is clear. The three-pronged war isn’t getting easier (especially

with the arrival of new leisure clothing brands such as Tommy


In the UK alone, the combined market in footwear and clothing was worth

almost pounds 1.7 billion last year. The potential fees for agencies are

similarly awe-inspiring. In the sports marketing championships, it’s not

the taking part that counts. Only winning will do.

As Campaign went to press, Simons Palmer lost its Nike business to

Wieden & Kennedy.

Market share: trainers

              Reebok     Nike    Adidas

Football      11%        5.8%     21.8%

Basketball      4.9%    35.9%     28.6%

Running        27.6%    36.2%     14.6%

Fitness        36.2%    28.9%     21.1%

Source: AC Nielsen MEAL (May 97)

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