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When Nike outsmarted Adidas during the 2012 London Olympics

Right from picking up Michael Jordan when he was a rookie to supporting Colin Kaepernick’s decision to take the knee while the national anthem was being played, Nike has made several smart marketing choices that have contributed to their rise. In 2012 though, they pulled off something incredible.

Adidas had bought the title sponsorship rights for 2012 London Olympics for $150 million. They also sat with the Olympics Committee and laid down a set of rules to make sure that no other brand is able to associate themselves with the event. Using words like ‘London Olympics’, ‘Summer Olympics’, ‘Olympics’, ‘2012 Olympics’, etc. was banned for all other brands.

Unfortunately for them, the plan didn’t work out well and Nike stole the thunder from under their feet. While there were 9000 tweets associating Adidas with Olympics, there were 16000 tweets associating Nike with Olympics. Not just that, while Adidas added 12000 followers to their handle, Nike added 57000 followers. Please note that this was in 2012 and the microblogging platform was not as widely used as it is now.

Outside Twitter too, Nike made a bigger impact. According to a survey conducted in USA, more people thought that Nike was the title sponsor of Olympics and not Adidas.

So how did Nike manage to pull off this heist? Well, they innovated. They weren’t allowed to use London, UK as a setting so they used other places named London but situated elsewhere in the world. They also signed a deal with 400 athletes so that they wore only yellow-green colored Nike Volt shoes.

Instead of athletes, they hired normal teenagers to feature in their ad which basically said that greatness wasn’t reserved for a select few. It was for everyone. The ad became so popular that it helped them overtake Adidas in this marketing war.

It’s not like Nike has never made mistakes. Initially, when they launched, they targeted elite athletes and forgot about common people who would buy their shoes. In a 1992 interview with Harvard Business Review, co-founder Phil Knight said, “We understood our “core consumers,” the athletes who were performing at the highest level of the sport. We saw them as being at the top of a pyramid, with weekend jocks in the middle of the pyramid, and everybody else who wore athletic shoes at the bottom. Even though about 60% of our product is bought by people who don’t use it for the actual sport, everything we did was aimed at the top. We said, if we get the people at the top, we’ll get the others because they’ll know that the shoe can perform. But that was an oversimplification. Sure, it’s important to get the top of the pyramid, but you’ve also got to speak to the people all the way down.”

They were also embroiled in controversy when Lance Armstrong and Maria Sharapova, two stars they sponsored, received bans for using performance enhancing drugs. Some people even pointed fingers at them for using sweatshops in poorer countries to produce their shoes. They withstood these setbacks and continued to produce premium footwear that was sold under an idea – that of overcoming all odds.

An example of this can be seen when Rafael Nadal was asked to retire by his doctor when he was just 19. The Spaniard had a congenital disease which was making his bones splinter. Everything seemed dark until his sponsor Nike developed a shoe with a modified sole. They were now able to cushion the part of Nadal’s feet that was causing problems. As a result of this, Nadal was able to have a glittering career (that’s not yet over) with 20 Grand Slam titles.

To conclude, we’ll tell you a story about Steve Jobs. When he returned to Apple in 1996, they were facing losses for an 11th straight year. Things were looking bleak and people were starting to lose faith in the company. That’s when, inspired by Nike’s marketing style, Jobs launched the ‘Think Different’ campaign. The rest, as they say, is history.


1. What Steve Jobs learnt from Nike's marketing campaign that beat it's rival Adidas (Think School)

2. High-Performance Marketing: An Interview with Nike’s Phil Knight (Harvard Business Review)

3. How Nike Became The Most Powerful Brand In Sports (CNBC)

4. Seth Godin Breaks Down the Brilliance of Nike's Brand Strategy (Behind the Brand)

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