Saying something nice about Nike (part one)

So there’s this thing in the book where I mention how bummed out I was when Nike bought Converse, and pretty much every interviewer asks me about it, so I kind of feel like I’ve been on a Nike-bashing tour lately.

Even so, as I say in the book, speaking as a business journalist who writes about branding, I am in awe of Nike: As a capitalist success story, and as an exercise in the raw power of image-making, it is truly astonishing.

Here’s a case in point. The other day I got a call from Eric Neel at ESPN.com. He was writing about some ads Nike had going during the U.S. Open, featuring Tiger Woods. Being totally indifferent to golf, and kind of busy, I knew nothing about this, but he told me the basics. I’ll quote here from Neel’s subsequent June 12 article:

In Nike’s new Tiger Woods commercial entitled “Never,” Earl Woods’ recorded voice plays over clips of his son, as a boy and as a man, practicing his legendary swing. Full of gravitas and pathos, it’s at once the voice of the guru who raised the greatest golfer who has ever lived and the voice of the absent father who died of cancer a little more than two years ago.

While Tiger starts and stops his swings, Earl explains the way he often intentionally distracted his son in order to make him stronger, sometimes dropping a bag full of clubs when Tiger was at the top of his backswing.

“I’d say, ‘Tiger, I promise you,’” Earl says as we look upon his son’s unmistakably steely gaze, “‘that you’ll never meet another person as mentally tough as you in your entire life.’ And he hasn’t. And he never will.”

See the ad here if you like.

Earl Woods, as you may know, is dead. So this is a pretty intense ad. Also possibly creepy, but never mind that. What Neel was curious about was, given that Woods went into this tournament recovering from knee surgery and not in top physical condition, wasn’t there a risk that he would stink up the joint, and both he and Nike would look bad?

In my role as a totally uninformed pundit, I responded that I didn’t think the risk was all that great, or rather that whatever risk there was actually made sense for Nike, which has long taken risks with its advertising, and has been almost impossibly effective at keeping its image fresh and relevant year after year. If this effort failed, well, so it goes.

But — what if Tiger wins? If he does, surely the coverage will be all about his awesome mental toughness and so on. Just like in the Nike ad! In fact, the ad would seem like part of the narrative of the tournament, almost like real-life Tiger was taking his cues from the inspiring marketing campaign.

And of course, Woods won.

Needless to say, I didn’t watch a single second of the coverage, so I don’t know how it all came across. But if Nike took a risk, they sure got the payoff. My musings had nothing to do with any guesses about Woods’ performance. But I will admit I followed a particular instinct: Don’t bet against Nike marketing.

So there’s that. I’ll say something else nice about Nike tomorrow. And it’s not about their ads. Or not exactly.