Sometimes, creativity is fed by limitation. In 2012, when Nike was not an official Olympic sponsor, its London Summer Games ambush marketing campaign had a focus: Suggest the Olympics without actually mentioning or showing the Olympics. The brand’s creative team stepped up to the task. One of the brand’s “Find Your Greatness” ads was so bold as to be named “London 2012” by setting it in other locations named London.
The most memorable of Nike’s London 2012 ambush ads was simply titled “Jogger.” It was a minute-long single cut of an overweight youth running into frame down the middle of a rural road. Boom.
But times have changed, and for Rio 2016 Nike is an official US Olympics Committee (USOC) sponsor and, for the first time, an official Olympics supplier, giving it access to use the Olympics name and story.
As Sports Business Daily reported in 2012 about Nike’s first IOC deal:
Under terms of the four-year deal, Nike will receive marketing and licensing rights to the Rio Games. It also will outfit all Brazilian national teams (except volleyball, which is sponsored by Olympikus) for the 2012 London and 2016 Rio Games. Unlike most Olympic apparel partners, Nike won’t outfit volunteers working at the Rio Games, and it is still being determined if it will provide opening and closing ceremony apparel for the Brazilian team, sources familiar with the deal said.
“There’s no bigger stage than the Olympics,” Nike chief marketing officer Greg Hoffman this week told The Business of Fashion about being an official sponsor of the Games for the first time in 16 years, adding that: “We sponsor both the US Olympic Committee and the Brazil Olympic Federation, as well as Rio 2016 and the Brazil Organising Committee. We’ve always had a relationship with sport in Brazil, specifically, and certainly the passion for sport within Brazil permeates through everything, so there’s always been a natural relationship between Nike and the Brazil consumer.”
Locked in a fierce competition of its own, Nike has already gotten a taste of its own medicine with Under Armour’s powerful “Rule Yourself” ambush campaign that took advantage of the IOC’s changes to Rule 40.
So how is Nike doing from inside the walls of the castle? While the Olympics are just getting rolling, The Swoosh started off with a pre-Games campaign built around the hashtag #ToVictory2016. These childhood-focused messages were uplifting stories about Rio-bound athletes; but they were ultimately less-than-dazzling for a brand that loves to dazzle.
But Nike is bringing out its A-game with the “Unlimited” campaign for Rio 2016 now unfurling. The seed was planted on July 24th with a 23 million-views-and-counting video bang, “Unlimited Future” — the kick-off to the “Just Do It—Unlimited” campaign. That spot featured actor Bobby Cannavale giving a locker-room style pep talk to a nursery full of babies in cribs—all destined to one day become world champions across different sports.
On August 5th, Nike released its follow-up ad, “Unlimited You,” a spot that ran during the Opening Ceremony telecast on Friday night and picks up where the nursery ad left off—in a baby’s crib and then onto scenes of struggling athletes. Until they’re not.
The voiceover is priceless, as the narrator — Star Wars: Force Awakens actor Oscar Isaac — predicts that these hapless newbies will one day be stars. “All of these athletes are terrible now, but they’ll all do big things one day,” he says.
Then—following the smashing of Nike’s iconic “Just Do It” tagline as it appears on-screen—the athletes break through the limit of the commercial to make it their own, and start talking back to the narrator, pushing themselves even further in their quest to break their own limits. The message is far more energetic, more brash—more Nike—than its pre-Game messaging.
“The end is really just the beginning for someone who’s looking to go beyond their limits, and that’s what that shattering logo represents,” Nike Global Corporate Communications Director Brian Strong told Ad Age. “‘Unlimited You’ celebrates athletes that break through their perceived limitations and then run past them as if they were never there. The film reflects the full campaign, which is about pushing our potential further than we expected by embracing an unlimited mindset.”
The spot was augmented by a fistful of “Unlimited” spots on YouTube (with more in the weeks to come) profiling Rio hopefuls like Alex Morgan, Ashton Eaton, the buzzed-about Simone Biles and Gabby Douglas—and stars like Serena Williams.
Unfortunately for Nike, one of its Unlimited profiles stars golfer Rory Mallory, pulled out of the Games due to health fears. It’s an announcement that came just a month before Nike’s campaign, a hiccup the brand could likely not see coming.
Another sticky situation the first-time IOC sponsor finds itself involves Gabby Douglas, USA gymnastics star and Nike Unlimited video figure. Under Armour’s “Rule Yourself” video—which has passed 3 million views and counting—features the whole gymnastics Team USA, minus Douglas of course, who’s instead found in her own Nike “Unlimited” profile.
And there you have it: despite rivals nipping at its heels, you see Nike feeling its oats and nailing the landing as a first-time official Olympics sponsor — and an ambush marketer no more.