Preference is Being Different, Not Being Like Nike

Success leaves clues but preference comes from being different

By Tom Dougherty

Jump Off The Bridge Stop Being Like Nike

Being Like NikeStop looking to the market leader as a role model. Consumer product branding is more complicated than that. This is a tough hump to get over because good common sense tells us to look for clues in proven successes. We still should. However, the clues we need to look for are not found in the advertising execution, but rather in the strategy we need to avoid.

As savvy marketers we all nod our heads in agreement about the need to look at strategy but when we look at the advertising messages filling the consumer pipeline, we must admit that what we see is a world full of the same brand messages and companies making the same mistakes.

Consider the athletic shoe category as a case in point. Nike is far and away the category leader. They built a juggernaut of a franchise on the new understanding of brand. While others in the category were busy selling “run faster and jump higher” (product benefits), Nike branding was hard at work selling brand.

Nike Did Not Copy Nike

Nike got it early on that consumers don’t buy benefits; they buy identity. Nike did (and still does) a great job telling all of us whom we are when we lace up a pair of their shoes. Not only did we flock in droves to buy them, we paid a tremendous price for the privilege of choosing their brand. Meanwhile, great old legacy brands such as Converse, Puma, and Adidas slipped further and further behind in the market. PF Flyers and others simply turned over and passed away completely.

Being Like NikeSome upstart “fashion” brands slipped in and out, but no one has cracked the Nike rock. The lesson to be learned from Nike is about brand segmentation and identification. They “just do it” better than anyone. The clues of their success are found in the brand thinking and the guts they showed in having gone against the advertising grain. Nike invented a new way to market and their advertising has never faltered.

The advertising has retained its freshness and brand integrity. However, some of the competition has decided the best way to fight Nike is to be just like them. A new Adidas commercial, starring Los Angeles Laker Kobe Bryant as the featured athlete (athlete endorser, now there’s a novel idea), has him cavorting above the rim in some hi-tech magic that looks, sounds and, worst of all, feels just like a Nike spot featuring Michael Jordan.

This advertising campaign hit the airwaves despite the fact that we all learned in Marketing 101 that only the market leader has the luxury of category building. Adidas will never be successful in challenging the Nike brand as long as it tries to be just like them. (Adidas wants to be like Mike.) If they wish to challenge Nike, they need to identify the members of a tight marketing segment and play to their differences — not attract their similarities. Why this advertising plagiarism happens is easy to understand.

Who in the athletic shoe category would not want to be like Nike? When you are spending $2.5 million on production for a single TV commercial and another $100 million on airtime, who among us is willing to take a risk? Ah, but here is the rub.

There is no risk in being just like Nike. Risk, by definition, means an uncertain outcome and when you copy the market leader failure is a certainty. In truth, it is not about risk but about blame. Who in the marketing department is going to get blamed for copying the market leader? Who ever lost their job in developing computer software for designing a copycat program of Microsoft? Brand Thief readers are different. We don’t get rewarded for team participation; we get rewarded for winning.

Do You Want To Win?

Being Like NikeIf you want to win you need to know your target audience better than the competition. You need to develop research that helps you understand core beliefs, the anthropological data that helps you get inside their dreams and aspirations. Nike is not about athletic competition, it’s not about shoes, it is all about us.

Who do we, as consumers, think we are? Who do we wish to be? How do we tell everyone around us what is important to us? (We are people who “just do it.”) And if we, as marketers, were beginning to develop a brand strategy to position us against Nike, we need to ask, “How is the target market different than who Nike thinks it is?”

This is always where the first chink in the armor of the consumer product branding can be found — especially in regards to the market leader. This is his weakness and what is inherent in the nature of his position. However, this is not enough. Marketers always need to evaluate the competitive messaging in our due diligence as well. We need to chart the messages, the style and the content.

(Here is a great example of charting a market) It is important to figure out which brand owns the messaging positions. More often than not, because brands try to copy the leader, you will find that the style and messaging will be similar too. If someone rises to the top with humorous advertising, you can expect to find everyone else filing into line like lemmings heading to the sea. Be different — not just because you want to, but also because you know how being different will grow your market share. Check out The Lowdown section for some samples of competitive brand charting.

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