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Why Nike ditched a proven winning strategy for the 2018 World Cup

The swoosh abandoned its previous one big ad success in favor of multiple–and mobile–stories targeted to specific audiences.

Why Nike ditched a proven winning strategy for the 2018 World Cup

It was called “Write the Future,” and in the summer of 2010 it became the fastest-spreading brand viral hit ever. It was Nike’s epic World Cup ad starring a laundry list of global soccer stars, and it easily won the title of best commercial of the tournament. Four years later, the brand unleashed “Winner Stays,” yet another big budget World Cup ad that once again seamlessly mixed major stars like Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar Jr., Wayne Rooney, and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, but this time with, uh, the Hulk.

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Both spots were major global hits and the cornerstone of Nike’s World Cup strategy. This year, the brand has ditched that winning formula in favor of a new strategy it believes better reflects shifts in consumer tastes and behavior—one that’s more focused on multiple stories over one epic ad and is targeted at specific segments of fans. Don’t panic, there’s still plenty of Ronaldo.

Nike’s vice-president of global football brand marketing Jesse Stollak calls the new strategy a “consumer direct offense”—meaning that, instead of piling all its superstars in one big ad, the brand spread them out across a variety of content, aimed that content at more specific audiences, and optimized the content for different platforms. Cristiano Ronaldo’s short “Believe” series is a vertical video series designed primarily for mobile. Meanwhile, the 18-minute short doc on the Nigerian World Cup squad is a longer-form video experience. It also mixed that in with typically fun Nike spots targeted at fans of both Brazil and host nation Russia.

“The first thing we looked at as we built the strategy was how the consumer landscape had evolved since 2014,” says Stollak. “We noticed how teen media consumption had shifted to time spent on Instagram, SnapChat, Whatsapp, and YouTube versus traditional broadcast. It is increasingly difficult to create a single, one-size-fits-all piece of content, but when we are more specific in the story related to consumer interests and channel, we’re more relevant and thus more effective.”

Stollak and his team also noticed the increasing pace of the news cycle. If you are able to ride the wave of current stories, Stollak says the brand is able to stay relevant and part of the conversation. He cites Ronaldo’s instant classic, game-tying free kick and the “Talk to the Ball” story, or its “Prove Them Wrong” story around Harry Kane and his World Cup-leading five goals.

“We still believe that big, splashy creative that uses the power of our athletes has a place, we just believe that it’s important to create dimension around this creative that tailors to the media consumers are engaging in, and connects back to the backdrop of the game and culture that’s happening,” says Stollak.

While fans of specific teams and players can obviously be found in their corresponding countries and regions, throughout this World Cup, Nike has seen tremendous interest in Nigeria, France, and Brazil coming from far beyond those countries’ borders. And the popular Nigeria apparel collection specifically has had a strong resonance with Nike’s passionate sneaker community around the world.

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The biggest challenge for Stollak and his team has been the change itself. “It’s hard to let go of a formula that has been so successful and unify everyone around a new, non-traditional approach–but we are very excited by the results and what we have learned along the way,” he says.

If consumer behavior informed this latest strategic shift, where are things headed for Qatar 2022? So far for Stollak, the earliest indications are more focused on product, specifically how the brand is using customization and collaboration to drive both hype and sales. He says the success of the Nigeria collection, the soccer kit customization in select retail shops, and streetwear-savvy collaboration launches done with Virgil Abloh’s Off-White, Kim Jones, and the Germany Deutschrap kits.

“Fans are still passionate about the jersey,” says Stollak. “But they are also excited to express their passion with other products, our federation training and lifestyle products are also seeing tons of positive energy, so the fan expression of their passion has gone well beyond the jersey.”

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About the author

Jeff Beer is a staff editor at Fast Company, covering advertising, marketing, and brand creativity. He lives in Toronto.

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