Marketer of the Year: Nike
Nike beats Adidas:
More than 60% of World Cup players sported Nike cleats in the opening round.
Online sales grew 31% over Labor Day weekend following the launch of a "Just Do It" campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick — a 17% higher increase than for the holiday weekend in 2017.
More than half of Nike's growth over the next five years is set to come from new innovation, while digital revenue is expected to grow from 15% today to more than 30% of the total.
Nike's high-profile bet on football star and activist Colin Kaepernick isn't the only touchdown earning the sportswear behemoth recognition as this year's most valuable player in marketing. Groundbreaking digital work and decisive action addressing a public relations fiasco related to toxic workplace culture are other remarkable achievements in 2018. With strong sales and enviable stock value growth, Nike is an example of the significant impact skilled marketers who aren't afraid to take risks can have on a business.
Already boasting a reputation for powerful creative, Nike elevated its credibility with consumers and marketers following the September debut of a new "Just Do It" campaign that prominently features Kaepernick. The show of support was risky because of the athlete's involvement in spurring protests by NFL players over racial injustice that have polarized Americans. Nike knew that spotlighting the athlete, who remains an unsigned free agent, had the potential to sour its relations with the NFL, a major force in marketing, but decided to leap anyway. The risk paid off, with Nike getting a boost in sales, store traffic and social buzz.
Nike CEO Mark Parker recently called out the most recent incarnation of "Just Do It," which also features Serena Williams, LeBron James and other athletes, for its record engagement and as an example of the importance of brand strength.
"We know it's resonated actually quite strongly with consumers," Parker told analysts during an earnings call in September. "... It's really transcended the North America market to touch people around the world."
Nike's fall rally is especially impressive considering that just eight months ago, it looked like 2018 wouldn't be the company's year, following revelations of a corporate culture that promoted harassment and bias. Coming when the brand was still in the early stages of an attempt to revive sales following a slump, the controversy could have derailed these efforts. Instead, Parker quickly owned up to the company's mistakes and promised to not tolerate toxic behavior going forward. The ensuing dustup was reportedly the reason why Trevor Edwards, Nike's brand president at the time, unexpectedly resigned.
Tech takes center stage
Behind the scenes, Nike was already benefiting from hard work behind boosting its digital chops, setting the company up to pioneer several new technologies in 2018. For example, Jordan Brand became the first to drive e-commerce through Snapchat earlier this year, using augmented reality to recreate basketball legend Michael Jordan's famous free-throw line dunk, which was unveiled for fans at a pre-release event. Sales through Snapchat wrapped up in 23 minutes.
Nike is also leading the way in leveraging mobile to enhance the physical retail experience at the Nike Live concept in Los Angeles, which puts mobile center stage to streamline shopping both in store and at home through product reservations, loyalty points and other mobile-powered features. The focus on smartphone engagement helps Nike gather data that informs choices about inventory, assortment and other in-store decisions. This and other efforts are why research Gartner L2 says Nike's mobile strategy puts it ahead of other athletics retailers.
"We have to be just as interesting as Beyoncé and your friend's avocado toast. In the feed you're stacked up all the same."
Global head of social strategy, Nike
On Instagram, Nike is successfully tweaking the singular brand voice typically evident in its marketing to allow for access to athletes that feels more real and authentic to fans.
"We have to be just as interesting as Beyoncé and your friend's avocado toast. In the feed you're stacked up all the same," Jackie Titus, the brand's global head of social strategy, said during an Advertising Week session in October. "You can't top Beyoncé, but it's a good goal."
In 2018, Nike has weathered internal controversy and dived headfirst into heavily debated social issues to come out ahead. At a time when marketers are being urged to bravely embrace new directions in messaging and tactics to connect with ad-weary consumers, Nike has built a path that others can follow.