3 Lessons For Every CMO From Nike’s 2017 Marketing Campaigns

Thursday, September 7 2017 Reinhard Cate Content Marketing Manager Categories:

As the world’s most valuable sports brand, Nike has consistently pushed the marketing envelope. The biggest names in sports promote and wear the brand to help deliver its message in cross channel campaigns. While not every CMO has a Nike-size war chest, a look at the narratives surrounding Nike’s brand over the past year can provide three critical lessons for formulating a powerful, revenue-generating strategy.


Behind the Analysis

The Protagonist platform uses a combination of natural language processing and computational linguistics to decipher the deeper belief systems present in social media, reviews, blogs, and news articles. We analyzed thousands of pieces of data about Nike over the past year to surface, classify, and quantify the underlying deep beliefs, or narratives that exist about the brand.


Every article is grouped into segments with similar content identified by the algorithm. We then give each article a score based on its volume and social engagement, called narrative impact. In order to compare the narratives to the entire conversation, a share of impact for each narrative is then calculated and is expressed as a percentage.


Lesson One: Leverage the Beliefs about your Brand

If Nike’s marketing success has taught us anything, it’s that understanding the underlying beliefs or narratives about your brand and then using them to shape and drive communication strategy works. This is how Nike engages with their target audience. See this in action for the three largest narratives about Nike.



All three narratives express positive beliefs about Nike, but each takes a different view of the company’s mission and identity: competitive, inclusive, and technical. The largest narrative Athletic Icon, captures 34% of the total conversation, and focuses on the belief that inherent to the company is a goal to support and foster greatness in elite athletes.


The second largest narrative Inclusive Partner, captures 26% of the conversation. This narrative expresses the belief that open support for equality and inclusivity, advocating for the embrace of diversity in society through its products and brand is part of the Nike identity. The last narrative is Design Pioneer, which captures 17% of the conversation, and covers the belief that Nike is constantly driving innovation in the athletic wear industry and setting an example for the future.



Throughout 2017, Nike marketing has effectively understood and harnessed the beliefs around its brand. It sponsors events to push barriers in sport like the “Breaking Two” event for long distance runners to break the two-hour marathon record, harnessing Athletic Icon. Nike consistently used powerful imagery of its sponsored athletes to utilize Athletic Icon, but also has promoted images of everyday women using the “Pro Hijab” or wearing the Nike Plus line amplifying Inclusive Partner.


Nike also emphasized the crucial technical aspects of its products to show their innovative qualities. This move amplified Design Pioneer. From highlighting advanced in everything from shoes to active wear, while spotlighting its designers and design team, Nike has successfully advanced the beliefs that their focus on technological innovation is core to its brand.


The best proof of Nike’s ability to understand and use the beliefs around their brand is how their marketing content influences the overall conversation. Not only do their positive narratives win out overall, but overtime, Nike dominates the conversation. The spikes indicate Nike’s marketing campaigns, clearly showing customer engagement.



Nike narratives are overwhelming positive with the highest impact events driven by the brand’s own marketing campaigns. Each month negative and neutral beliefs about Nike are consistently overshadowed by positive beliefs. The brand is consistently bolstered by not just each individual narrative association alone, but often a combination of the three.


The equality campaign provides the best example of this as elite Nike athletes came together to push for equality in society and sport. This bolstered the narratives Athletic Icon and Inclusive Partner showing the highest impact spike over the last year.


Lesson Two: Know when to Take a Public Stand

In today’s increasingly politicized environment, taking a public stance on an issue can be incredibly risky. Recently, Protagonist’s CEO Doug Randall wrote a post on when and how companies can do this. If we take a look at Nike’s public stand and strategy on inclusivity and diversity, they did more than a few things right. The company’s stance has been incredibly deliberate, reflecting a deep knowledge of the conversation while also understanding Nike’s commitment to inclusivity and diversity. The strategy of their stance also starts from at the top down, beginning with executive leadership and extending throughout the organization into its marketing and demand generation campaigns.


Nike CEO, Mark Parker, first openly criticized the Trump Administration’s executive order banning citizens from Muslim majority nations from coming to the United States. Then the company used the star power of its biggest athletes to take part in the “Equality” campaign. Together with the introduction of the “Pro Hijab”, and the “Plus Line” Nike has chosen to fully embrace the Inclusive Partner narrative and take a public stand in support of diversity. Despite the highly politicized nature of the issue, the reception has been overwhelmingly positive for the company and the success of its stand is clearest in the February “Equality” ad, which garnered nearly five million views.


Lesson Three: Amplify Your Narratives with the Right Influencers

The influencers in conversation about a brand are critical to its success. Influencers can range from someone in company leadership, to pundits, athletes, and even politicians. A successful influencer is anyone who helps engage with and influence your buyers. Yet while Nike’s influencers consisted of nearly all these types, it’s highest impact influencer was an athlete that amplified both of Nike’s two largest positive narratives Athletic Icon and Inclusive Partner, Lebron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers.



While Nike chose to take a public stance directly against the policy of the President of the United States, surprisingly President Trump wasn’t the largest driver of impact in the conversation. Instead, Lebron James one of the company’s key sponsored athletes was the primary influencer, more than doubling the narrative impact of the President. Nike successfully understood and harnessed its two largest positive narratives Athletic Icon and Inclusive Partner and amplified both narratives via Lebron James as their influencer. James’ standout influence in the overall conversation is indicative the success of Nike’s campaign.


While Nike founder Phil Knight and current CEO, Mark Parker also drive significant impact, they’re still dwarfed by James’ influence. All is not perfect in Nike land, as there are still some warning signs in the results that Nike need to pay attention to. The high influence of President Trump is worrisome for any brand, given the current highly-partisan, political climate. Furthermore, Under Armour CEO, Kevin Plank, a direct competitor has a strong influence on the conversation driving 4% of narrative impact. However, the sheer dominance of Lebron James presence in the conversation represents the success of Nike’s ability to utilize an influencer to help shape the positive beliefs around its brand.


The Narrative Takeaway

Regardless of your company’s size or industry, it is critical to make data driven decisions before developing and executing any marketing, public relations, or even product strategy. Not every CMO has the resources, reach, or brand recognition of Nike. Yet the successful tenants behind Nike’s marketing strategy are simple enough to be implemented by any company. Whether the data around your brand comes from a national perspective or a local one, identifying and leveraging the beliefs about your company is critical to shaping a successful marketing strategy that will ultimately resonate with your customers.


If you don’t know how your customers perceive you or what narratives impact them, how can you engage with them? All modern marketing CMOS are judged on performance, on actually driving revenue, and we can’t do that without understanding our buyers.