There’s no doubt that Nike is established as the single most successful sportswear brand in the world, with total revenue of $37.40 billion recorded against the backdrop of a global pandemic in 2020.
Arguably, Nike is also the most iconic brand in this particular marketplace, with this largely the result of its innovative and creative ad campaigns that have enabled it to steal a considerable march on their competitors.
In this post, we’ll look back at some of Nike’s best advertising campaigns, while appraising their impact and why they became so iconic.
Just Do It (1988)
Let’s start with the basics; as no list of this type would be complete without Nike’s iconic ‘Just Do It’ campaign that ran through 1988.
This campaign tagline was created 12 months previously in 1987 by the Wieden + Kennedy ad agency, in order to accompany the brand’s first series of major television ads.
This campaign included a relatively disparate range of ads for running, walking, cross-training, basketball and women’s fitness, with each commercial developed by a different creative team and contributing to a slightly uneven and questionable strategy overall.
So, it was decided that a tagline was needed to afford some unity to the work, ideally one that was aspirational in nature and capable of appealing to even the hardest core athletes (in addition to casual users).
The ‘Just Do It’ tagline remains a seminal part of Nike’s advertising to this day, with its relevance as striking today as it was 33 years ago.
In addition to driving instant brand recognition and boasting incredible longevity, the tagline has also been praised for reaching individuals across the globe. To this end, it has been translated into numerous languages during the last two decades, while the Foundation for the Blind gave Nike its 1995 ‘Access Award’ for its creation and distribution of a ‘Just Do It’ poster in braille.
Initially, the inaugural ‘Just Do It’ campaign went out across a broad range of media outlets in addition to merchandise, including print media, television, graffiti art of outdoor billboards, while the continual use of this slogan has helped to optimise sales and impact across the globe.
A 30th anniversary campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick and other athletes saw a 31% spike in sales after sharing the slogan across billboard and TV ads, for example, while ‘Just Do It’ has also become a seminal hashtag in the social media age.
More than 15 million Instagram posts currently carry the iconic #JustDoIt hashtag, with this also underpinning much of the user generated content that now popularises Nike across a range of social platforms.
Write the Future (2010)
Interestingly, the UK-based Wieden + Kennedy was also placed in charge of the ‘Write the Future’ campaign, which preceded the 2010 football World Cup in South Africa.
The concept here was striking, with the creative focusing on the ripple effect caused by a single dramatic event in a footballer’s career.
Through the visuals and the core tagline, the campaign reinforces the notion that Nike boots and sportswear can give customers the power to write their own destinies, just as their idols on the football pitch have done previously.
Of course, this ad fits well within Nike’s typical modus operandi, with creatives aimed at inspiring customers and striking an aspirational note among a broad demographic of customers. To this end, it featured star footballers including Wayne Rooney, Didier Drogba, Cristiano Ronaldo and Ronaldinho, with each performer writing their own unique stories to the uplifting sound of prog rock anthem ‘Hocus Pocus’.
Exquisitely shot and directed by renowned Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez, it’s arguably Nike’s greatest ever advert from an artistic perspective, while it also had an incredible commercial effect on behalf of the brand.
The viral nature of the ad also helped to achieve the core objective of boosting social media engagement across various channels, with Nike Football’s Facebook fans increasing by 336% from 1.1 million to 4.8 million throughout the 2010 World Cup.
Overall, the spot was viewed online more than 50 million times, while Nike became the single most shared brand online throughout the whole of 2010.
Bo Knows (1989)
Despite the game-changing nature of Nike’s ‘Just Do It’ campaign in 1988 (and the growing popularity of primary athlete Michael Jordan), the brand remained firmly behind rivals Reebok in the wider sportswear marketplace at the end of this year.
This was something that Nike sought to change in 1989, thanks to a combination of creative brilliance and the heroics of two-sport athlete Bo Jackson (who smashed a first-inning home run during the Major League Baseball All-Star Game).
These two moments combined in the mind of one ad copywriter, who conceived a campaign idea in which Jackson was capable of doing just about anything. This not only tied in perfectly with the aspirational nature of the ‘Just Do It’ campaign and the brand as a whole, but it also leveraged the unique status of Jackson as someone who had starred as both a baseball and American football player.
Featuring a series of ads, this campaign saw Jackson do everything from riding a bike to dunking a basketball while considering the wider brilliance of ‘Air Bo’, while its creative simplicity quickly helped Nike to supersede Reebok as the world’s leading athletic shoe company.
They eventually secured 80% of the cross-training shoe market (going from $40 million in sales to $400 million), with much of this attributed to the popularity of Jackson and his affinity with the Nike brand.
Above all else, this campaign showcased Nike’s innate ability to create persona-driven content, which has been central to the brand’s success over the course of the last three decades.
I Am Not a Role Model (1993)
And now, as Monty Python would say, for something completely different!
Starring the legendary basketball player Charles Barkley, this ad was highly controversial at the time of its launch, while it completely flipped the brand’s script and sought to deconstruct the classic nations of sports stars as role models (ironically one that Nike had done much to build in the first place).
Filmed in black and white, the ad uses a close-up camera angle that’s focused on Barkley as he talked candidly about not being paid to be a role model or “raise other people’s kids”.
Brooding, powerful and edgy in equal measure, the ad was incredibly divisive and drew complaints for some, but despite this, it generated significant talking points and enabled Nike to transcend the sportswear market and potentially reach a wider range of followers.
This was considered necessary at the time, as despite Nike’s huge commercial success in the late 80s and early 90s, by 1993 the brand had lost ground to Reebok in the market for teenage males.
This was Nike’s bread-and-butter demographic, so the brand devised a unique and eye-catching campaign that continued to leverage the personas of its athletes while exploring a completely new angle.
Michael Jordan – Failure (1997)
Despite the immense roles played by Jackson and Berkley in Nike’s earlier campaigns, Michael Jordan remains the man who did the most to popularise the brand in the US and overseas.
In this 1997 ad, Nike largely replicated the dark and brooding ambience of Berkley’s ‘I Am Not a Role Model’ campaign, as Jordan spoke candidly about the numerous failures of his career.
He opined how he had missed more than 9,000 shots, lost close to 300 games and failed to convert a total of 26 game-winning shots despite earning the trust of his teammates.
The monologue concluded with the immortal “I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed”.
Once again, Nike had managed to construct a powerful and aspirational creative message around the persona of one of its iconic athletes, while successfully leveraging the age-old mantra that failure and rebounding from disappointment is key to future accomplishments.
Jordan became the embodiment of this introspective candour and quiet determination, while the ad helped to popularise the iconic ‘Air Jordan XIII’ shoes as part of a global sales campaign.
When you consider that Jordan has earned over $1 billion from Nike over the course of his career, it stands to reason that the basketball star has continued to play a seminal role in the brand’s continued success. However, there’s little doubt that the 1997 ‘Failure’ campaign represented a commercial and artistic peak in the relationship.
Find Your Greatness (2012)
Not only is this one of Nike’s more recent ads, but it’s also undoubtedly the single most human campaign that the brand has ever created.
Not only does this speak to hard-core and talented athletes, but it also attempts to connect with those of us who are trying, in our own small way, to live a better, healthier and more active life.
Simply shot and seamless in its execution, the ad ran largely on television and promotes the overarching message that greatness is not the preserve of talented or genetically-gifted athletes.
In fact, it can be achieved by anyone, so long as they’re willing to work tirelessly and make sacrifices in the pursuit of their goals.
Featuring everyday people in the course of running and striving to get fit, the deceptively powerful visuals definitely capture the attention of viewers, while the brilliant ‘Find Your Greatness’ tagline is capable of resonating in any mildly aspirational psyche.
Created to coincide with the London 2012 Olympics, the one-minute ad promo ran in 25 different countries, driving global sales while leveraging the emotive and inspirational spirits of the world’s most iconic sporting event.
It achieved marked commercial success as a result, while encouraging viewers to alter their mindset and challenge the psychological barriers that often stand in the way between ambition and success.
Tiger Woods Juggling (1999)
It’s hard to think of a more iconic or famous sportsman in 1999, with Tiger Woods having just won his first PGA Championship (and second major crown) after blitzing the field in a record-breaking Masters tournament win two years previously.
As a result, Tiger became the latest face of the global Nike brand, with several ads crafted around the golfer’s incredible athleticism, quietly-confident personal and powerful game.
Many of these have long since been forgotten, of course, but one ad from 1999 remains as memorable and iconic today as it was 22 years ago.
An enduringly simple commercial, it features a static, continuous take during which Tiger skilfully juggles a golf ball with a club before hurling it up in the air and hitting it with perfect form.
When compared to the creativity and ambition featured in some of the previous ads on our list, we recognise that this may not seem like much. But the mesmerising nature of the shot and Tiger’s skills (allied with the perfect representation of his form when striking the ball) is incredibly eye-catching, to the point where it feels as though the video could almost be CGI-generated.
Ultimately, the short and impromptu 30-second ad captures the simple wonder of sport, while subtly highlighting the natural ability of athletes who rise to the very top of their games.
Ironically, Woods actually appeared on the course to shoot a different advert that day, but Nike Golf’s global marketing director Chris Zimmerman was keen to capture as much footage as possible during a day’s worth of shooting with the world’s most marketable athlete.
As a result, the footage of Woods juggling was almost captured by accident, creating an incredible backdrop for a stunningly successful promotion.
As you can imagine, this triggered a marked hike in Nike golf ball sales in 1999 and in the aftermath of the advert, while Woods himself switched from a Titleist to a Nike ball the following year.
The Last Word
There are some honourable mentions in addition to these ads, of course, from ‘The Great Chase’ advert in 2020 to the popular ‘Worth the Wait’ campaign four years previously.
However, we believe that the ads on this list are the best that Nike has ever produced across multiple channels, from the perspective of both commercial success and creative brilliance.
One thing’s for sure; Nike continues to produce spectacular ads to this day, while the diversity of the brand’s creative output puts other advertisers to shame.