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It’s gotta be the ads! Inside Nike’s 50th anniversary: Celebrate the past, focus on the future

Exclusive: Nike CMO DJ van Hameren on the brand’s new 50th anniversary campaign, starting with a new Spike Lee ad.

It’s gotta be the ads! Inside Nike’s 50th anniversary: Celebrate the past, focus on the future
[Source Images: Nike; Getty]

Just do it. Revolution. Bo knows. I am not a role model. It’s gotta be the shoes. Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything.

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Over the last 50 years, Nike has built its legend on the back of fun, emotionally gripping, inspiring, and downright cool creative advertising. To mark the occasion, the brand enlisted Oscar winner Spike Lee, the man behind some of its most iconic work, often with its signature star Michael Jordan, to direct and star in a new spot. The ad, which kicks off Nike’s 50th anniversary celebrations, features Lee reprising his role as Mars Blackmon, which is the character he played in both his first film, She’s Gotta Have It, and in a series of spots since 1988.

In “Seen It All,” Lee, as Blackmon, waxes poetic on some of the most epic sports moments and legendary athletes in Nike’s history. Lee’s “Old Man River” routine is contrasted with the energy of his young chess-playing partner, who focuses her enthusiasm on the more recent present as well as where sport is headed.

In many ways, this is a classic Nike commercial, in how it manages to balance between deifying the superstars and hyping the everyday fan, all in the same breath. It’s also a deft bridge from the brand’s legacy to its vibrant place in the popular culture. Created with longtime ad agency Wieden+Kennedy, the ad is not groundbreaking, but many fans will get more classic rather than standard vibes as the ad speed runs through more than 40 stars and moments, from Steve Prefontaine and Jordan, Ronaldinho and Serena Williams, Kobe and LeBron, Naomi Osaka and Sue Bird.

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Nike global CMO Dirk-Jan “DJ” van Hameren, who has held the role since 2018, says that the challenge in trying to sum up 50 years of brand history in one ad is exactly in that balance between honoring the past and looking to the future: to acknowledge and excite fans who grew up with the brand while also inspiring its newer generations of customers. In Lee, they found a hybrid between history teacher and hype man.

“Spike has been a phenomenal partner for us, through many eras, and he’s still extremely relevant today,” van Hameren says. “To approach this, we looked at many options, but ultimately you’re going to find a way that really embodies past-meets-present, and that creates tension, which is great. We knew by working with Spike, he was going to push us, we were going to push him, so it was a really fun, at times intense, process that really helped us deliver something we wanted.”

The anniversary work is part of the brand’s ongoing “Never Done” campaign launched earlier this year, and will feature more content throughout 2022, including work on the evolution of the Swoosh, Joan Benoit Samuelson’s legacy in running, the impact of the Waffle Racer, and the Nike Air platform, as well as highlights from Nike advertising milestones across the last 50 years.

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Almost from the start, Nike has been known as one of the world’s best, most creative marketers, and as the media landscape has fragmented, the brand has worked to go beyond its traditional strongholds in print and TV ads. Last November, it launched Nikeland inside Roblox, and van Hameren says the work across its apps—such as Nike Run Club and Snkrs—as well as its audio work like guided runs, the Nike Playlist video series, and the recently launched No Off-Season podcast, is as strong as any it has ever done. “We just look for things we can do to help sport play a meaningful role in people’s lives,” he says.

Another cultural shift has been brands taking a more active role in making social commentary, and Nike has been no exception. Most notably, its 2018 ad starring Colin Kaepernick, which sparked a backlash and boycott among right-wing critics, but ultimately led to stronger sales. Van Hameren says that the brand’s voice on various issues comes from its core foundation of listening to athletes—and subsequently using its voice to amplify their perspective.

“As a brand, you have to be clear on your values,” he says. “We’re very clear with our values in society and the things that we believe. Sport, or a particular athlete, can offer a platform for that. We’re making sure what’s right for our teammates at Nike, the athletes we work with, and the communities we serve. It has been a tumultuous couple of years, and I’m extremely proud of the work we’ve done, and there’s more work to be done in the future.”

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As a former Olympic cyclist (1992 Barcelona Games), van Hameren credits early Nike ads such as 1987’s legendary “Revolution” and “Bo Knows” (1989) that really drew him to the brand. “That was pure inspiration and aspiration for me,” he says. “It spoke to me. And what I like to do is create that connection with athletes around the world with our work today. That’s always our ambition.”

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About the author

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

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