World: Analysis - Nike and Adidas' dominance brings out best in underdogs

The big two's budgets force smaller brands to be more creative, Lucy Aitken writes.

Adidas' latest TV ad shows 1974 footage of Muhammad Ali carefully edited with film of his daughter to make it look like they're fighting in the ring. The endline? "Impossible is nothing."

The campaign, which runs in more than 50 markets, is estimated to cost more than 40 million euros. This is the tip of a huge iceberg for Adidas: the European sportswear manufacturer spends 800 million euros on marketing every year -between 12 and 13 per cent of its overall sales. Fifty per cent of that is spent on sponsoring athletes such as David Beckham and Zinedine Zidane, while the other half is Adidas' advertising budget.

Adidas is no doubt hoping that "impossible is nothing" becomes as big as Nike's ubiquitous imperative, "just do it". Nike, the sports world's juggernaut, has enjoyed a reputation for quality advertising all of which bears its swoosh and slogan combo.

For the two dominant brands in the sports world, an umbrella statement is a necessary tool in the marketing armoury. But what about those lesser-known sports brands across the globe who are fighting to get noticed?

Adrian Cory, the Umbro International marketing director, says: "We know that, from a media point of view, we'll struggle to compete with Nike and Adidas so we need to be smarter about what communications we use."

Umbro is scaling down its above-the-line presence and is instead focusing on its revamped website, as well as continuing to sponsor the England football team.

According to Cory, Umbro is also exploring links with fashion. "We are starting to merge football and fashion together more than we have been and launched a joint venture with the fashion designer Dirk Bikkembergs at Milan fashion week."

Increasingly the world of sport blurs with fashion. Pony's global print campaign, for instance, resembled a high-fashion campaign in its stylish photography. Created by the ex-Bartle Bogle Hegarty creatives Fred & Farid, the campaign tackles religion, sex and race in a bold fashion and is a million miles away from the heart-thumping athleticism synonymous with Adidas or Nike ads.

Rich Silverstein, the creative director at Goodby Silverstein & Partners, which won the Pony account last year, describes the campaign as "irreverent". He adds: "Nike does a great job of being close to sport, whereas we are closer to fashion."

Pony's approach could suggest a way forward for sports brands that is more catwalk than locker room. As fashion brands such as Prada jump on the sports bandwagon, resulting in mounting pressure on existing sports marques to be clever in their communications, playing the fashion brands at their own game is a viable option.

Asics had a solid springboard when it was relaunching its Onitsuka Tiger training shoes. Uma Thurman sported the famous yellow and black trainers in Kill Bill, so Asics' agency, the Amsterdam-based StrawberryFrog, capitalised on the connection with the silver screen. The most recent print work for the brand continues the association, being reminiscent of Thurman's all-in-one yellow-and-black outfit with matching helmet.

StrawberryFrog's creative partner, Scott Goodson, remembers: "We didn't want to compete with Adidas and Nike as we don't want a mass audience; we want an arthouse audience."

So in search of Asics wearers who spend more time in a dark room watching arty films than in the open air completing laps, the agency made a short film which was screened at film festivals. The Fish Gutter is a comedy where the eponymous hero runs a marathon on his fingers wearing Asics trainers. Goodson says: "We want to engage consumers to give them multiple doors into the brand and to make it famous and cool. We're also trying to maintain the sports integrity of the brand by involving athletes."

Puma, which has enjoyed something of a renaissance thanks to a dynamic new chief executive and the trend for retro clothing, involves athletes by sponsoring the Jamaican national and Olympic football teams. Puma is supplying the teams with footwear and clothing until 2008. Creatively, this lends a colourful theme to Puma's advertising.

Reebok, though, has chosen an alternative route: befriending rappers. In addition to links with basketball and other sports, Reebok signed up Jay-Z and 50 Cent to endorse its urban Rbk brand and entice back brand defectors. These are teenaged boys in the US who buy multiple pairs of trainers and who eschewed the Reebok brand when it was the housewife's choice in the 90s.

The tactic has paid off: the Jay-Z Rbk line has become the brand's fastest-selling product and Reebok's sales for 2003 totalled $3.5 billion. Advertising-wise, the US campaign featuring the fictional office linebacker Terry Tate has been well received. Yet Silverstein understands its positioning problem in the US: "Reebok is always going to be 'me too' against Nike or Adidas."

Ultimately, all sports brands are competing for the same prize: to be seen as "authentic". Yet they also seek kudos among younger consumers who, somewhat ironically considering the billions spent on sportswear every year, spend less time than ever playing team sports or exercising. In the battle of the sports brands, the competition will only intensify. It's going to be gloves off for many rounds to come.

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