Arnold Palmer, a pioneer and a dealer in hope

It doesn’t take a brand strategist to figure out the appeal of Arnold Palmer. He was one of us.

Arnold Palmer
Arnold Palmer, the King of the people.

Before Palmer, golf was a sport for the elites, like polo. It was birthed in 15th-century Scotland by kings and stayed that way until after World War II.

That’s when Palmer showed up. His personality, born from less than elite status in Latrobe, Penn., was outgoing and inclusive. He adopted the game following his dad, who wasn’t a member of the local country club, but the greenskeeper.

Arnold Palmer’s personality was so welcoming that he attracted fans to the game who had previously ignored it. They became known as Arnie’s Army, a version of a rebellion in the sport of golf. If you were part of that army, you identified yourself as a new wave of golfers and fans. That is, the rest of us.

His passion sparked a game that was not polite, a go-for-broke style that worked against the demure, chip-away-at-things style his forbearers played. That led to 62 PGA Tour wins and seven major victories.

He was a true pioneer and he will be missed.

Arnold Palmer embodied a brand of the people.

He was also the perfect embodiment of a brand. Many mistakenly believe brand is about what the company/product offers. “We do this,” “We do that” become the mantras of brands that find themselves in perpetual stagnation.

But brand that’s practiced to be persuasive is about the aspirational self-reflection we (fans, consumers) see in the brand. When we buy an Apple product, we “think different.” When we buy a Nike shoe, we “just do it.”

For fans of Arnold Palmer, the self-reflection was, in its own way, fighting the power: The common man taking over a sport that was previously hidden. Palmer’s down to earth personality played into that, but also the fierce way he played. As Napoleon said, “A leader is a dealer in hope.” That was Arnold Palmer.

Even the drink he invented, the Arnold Palmer, was a common man kind of drink. Who would have thought that iced tea and lemonade, the drinks you sip while sitting on the porch, would work so well together?

Yes, Arnold Palmer was great. He was a true pioneer. And he was one of us.

The genius of Phil Knight

I’m a little late to this, as we’re all caught up in the US women’s World Cup victory, Fourth of July weekend and, for a the minor few, Donald Trump’s descent into madness.

But I wanted to say a few words about Phil Knight.

Phil Knight, as most of you know, has been the driving force of the Nike brand ever since he joined up with legendary University of Oregon track coach Bill Bowerman to develop a shoe that took advantage of the jogging craze in the early ‘70s.

He's up there with Steve Jobs and Walt Disney as brand geniuses.
He’s up there with Steve Jobs and Walt Disney as brand geniuses.

Last week, Knight announced he’s stepping down as chairman of the board at Nike, although many reports say the 77-year-old will still wield influence.

He should. Once Nike got really going in the early ‘80s, it turned the sneaker industry upside down. Until then, shoe brands focused solely on the shoe. They simply marketed what aspects of the shoe manufacturers thought would be appeal to consumers, such as arch support and other product benefits.

It was Knight who understood that product features were not the reasons why people choose. They choose for emotional reasons, then backfill those choices based on rational reasons to affirm their choices.

It’s the same understanding that innovators such as Steve Jobs and Walt Disney knew. To actually have a brand that’s coveted, it must tap into the highest emotional intensity in the market.

Jobs knew coveting technology was for those who “think different.” Disney knew that his brand would only become powerful if it was about magic.

What Phil Knight did.

At the time when Knight starting powering Nike through our consciousness, Nike was floundering. Converse, if you can believe it, was the best-selling sneaker. In just a few years, Knight turned Nike into the overwhelming market leader while Converse went into a nosedive and irrelevancy. (Only for Knight and Nike to buy Converse later, turning it into a fashion brand.)

The “Just Do It” campaign tapped into the idea of being a winner, without all the fuss. Just run. Just work out. Just exercise. Just achieve. Just win.

Knight connected the Nike brand to the world’s greatest winners such as Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods. Nike had such a strong bench of winners that even when Tiger’s allure faded, the brand still represented winning.

The lesson of Phil Knight and Nike is still apropos in today’s marketing world. So many brands still think they can out-feature the competition to win. You see it with fast food brands that are currently flummoxed why their new menu items aren’t increasing market share.

Even some of the largest brands in automotive, banking and car insurance have no idea of how to make a “Just Do It” connection to their audiences so they will be coveted. They just talk about the car, bank services and insurance prices.

Nike never talks about the shoe.

So, while the rise of Nike began decades ago, the lesson taught by Knight is as important as ever to marketers today.