Adidas

Can Ubiquity Make a Brand Invisible?

michael-phelps-rio-olympics-gold-medal-1.jpgDo we even see the Nike logo anymore?

 

The USA Men’s Olympic Swim Team faced not one, but two scandales last week — the lesser-known and more interesting of which is that Michael Phelps, the superstar of Under Armor’s stable of representatives wore sweatpants featuring a very prominent swoosh on the cover of this month’s Sports Illustrated.

But did he even realize he was wearing it?

All members of Team USA are required to wear Nike gear when competing in the Olympics per the USOC, even if it conflicts with an athlete’s personal sponsorship. This is a tricky branding situation for which I can’t think of another analogy — if a celebrity represents a designer label, she usually wears that label to events, but not necessarily in everyday life or in magazine editorials. This spawns its own interesting question: is an athlete obligated to wear his sponsor’s gear in an editorial, if other celebrities are not held to the same standard?

My answer to that question would be no, but in any case, Phelps is decidedly not in Olympic uniform in this photo. His clothes could be his own or chosen for him (unlikely; no self-respecting stylist would put him in that Zuck-ish polo), but regardless, did none of the individuals involved in this photoshoot —the athletes, stylists, photographer, editors, et all — even notice that he was donning a Nike swoosh? I think it was completely invisible to them, even to Phelps himself. This should be a smug moment of triumph for Nike, besting Under Armor, but instead it’s an indication of an issue in Nike’s brand recognition.

Nike is such a behemoth that it’s a synecdoche for all atheleticwear, in the vein of Spandex, Xerox, Kleenex, and, in Texas, Coke, standing in for all of their respective related or competitor’s products. It’s so big, in fact, that our brains barely process the logo anymore, like speed-reading through something you already know. I wouldn’t have even noticed that Phelps was wearing Nike pants in the photo had the fashion industry not started buzzing about it. But is that a good thing or a bad thing for Nike?

I think it’s both. It’s great to be the synecdoche because it’s a guarantee of popularity and quality. But a brand can become too big and lose its meaning  unless it’s kept ultra-current, which Nike is good at doing by offering enormous variety and customization options. But still, the logo can go mentally unprocessed. Who are Nike’s spokespeople? I can’t name a single one besides Michael Jordan in ye olden days. Perhaps more visible advertisement, beyond a small smooth Swoosh on an athlete’s lapel, would lend the brand more concrete meaning to an audience that doesn’t obsessively consume sports. Perhaps they should also consider non-athlete or famous spokespeople to front or even design for the brand, like what Puma has done with Rihanna, or non-traditional athletes, like Misty Copeland for Under Armor. I would love for a celebrity trainer like Mary Helen Bowers to be a spokesperson for Nike, or for Nike to do a black-and-white photoshoot starring an icon like Mikhail Baryshnikov (who, does, I can ah, say from personal experience, wear sneakers in his downtime.)

My next instinct would be to advise Nike to carve out niches within its bigness, like going after the fashion set. Adidas already has the upper hand here, however, with its ultra-popular Stan Smith and its collaborations with Kanye West, Raf Simons, and Stella McCartney. Reebok, too, is collaborating with interesting non-apparel labels like FACE Stockholm to appeal to a young, trendy set.  Nike could continue to expand its fashion collaboration attempts, like the one launched with Ricardo Tischi earlier this year. Carine Roitfeld for Nike has a nice ring to it.

In the short term, to boost its falling stock, Nike could push the Huarache shoe into becoming the next Instagram star, like the white-and-burgundy Nike Free was few years ago. This style is on the precipice of really “happening,” and just needs some more Instagram and editorial coverage.

Nike can combat its logo invisibility with a revamped advertising platform, since it’s not the logo itself, but its ubiquity coupled with a lack of meaningful advertising that causes the brain skip. But really, we don’t have to worry about Nike going anywhere despite interesting and innovative endeavors by its competitors. It already has the cultural resonance (and money) for permanent staying power, as long as it doesn’t get too comfortable on its laurels.

 

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Yeezy: A Marketing Miracle

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We all know how a great match between product and brand ambassador can result in great sales and even iconic advertisements — Kate Moss for Calvin Klein, Isabella Rossellini for Lancome Trésor, etc. But what happens when a great match is made initially, but then the ambassador’s reputation falters or becomes uncertain?

You know what I’m getting at in this case — Kanye and Yeezy resell madness. How is the popularity of Yeezy sneakers still so explosive when Kanye has committed painful schadenfreude after painful schadenfreude on social media in the last two weeks? Why do consumers want to associate themselves with someone who at best displays incredibly poor judgement when speaking, and at worse is tens of millions of dollars in debt and on the verge of a complete nervous breakdown?

I think the answer here is two-pronged —  an instance of absurd good luck that paired a good product and its narcissistic personality disorder Frankenstein with a forgiving public with an appetite for rarity and athleisure.

First, the product is remarkably good and strategically scarce. The Boost 350, which was released exactly a year ago, originally retailed for $200, but now are as much as $1,500 new for certain colors on Ebay; around 500 pair of the new Boost 750 were released to lucky fans last weekend, and have been sold for as much as $5,400 online. It’s a great looking shoe and scarce enough to stir up hype independent of Kanye: it’s a Yeezy before it’s an Adidas or Kanye West product. It appears that if the product is truly good and can create its own identity in pop culture, it doesn’t matter if the face of the brand is in a period of uncertain personal brand coding: sales will remain strong.

Secondly, I think perhaps people think of the face of a brand in more of an archetypal way, taking his or her entire career into consideration when deciding what the ambassador means in the culture, rather than deploying an up-to-the-moment pop-culture analysis of his or her actions. Consumers and Yeezy fans look at Kanye as someone who has been a successful, if megalomanic, entertainer for ten years, who courts controversy as part of his personality — and this recent series of stunts will be an inconsequential blip on his oeuvre.

Another example of this long-term archetypal thinking is Johnny Depp being selected to serve as the face of Dior’s Eau Sauvage cologne this fall. Once the embodiment of a filthy strain of cool, in the last two years or so has become a punchline, a bloated caricature of himself hurtling toward a midlife crisis all pistons firing. And yet, I thought to myself, who else could be Dior’s elegant savage? Only Depp, or at least, the legacy of Depp (and the photoshopped version of Depp in the ads) fit the bill. It turns out the public agrees with me — Eau Sauvage was the number one men’s fragrance in most countries where it was distributed in 2015 after its launch in September of the same year. Even though he’s making a fool of himself in the tabloids just right now, his archetype remains intact in the public’s mind.

And the media doesn’t care as much about the embarrassing antics of West and Depp because the two are male entertainers. Although they aren’t representing the brands they are fronting well, they’ve faced no consequences from sale outcome or industry bosses. When Kate Moss was photographed doing cocaine in 2005, the speed with which the axe fell was incredible: not only did she loose nearly all of her contracts, but was blistered in the media for months. (I did benefit from this incident by writing about it in my SAT essay, which, if memory serves, garnered a perfect score,) Men certainly have it easier when representing a label — their personal brand archetypes aren’t subject to as much scrutiny as women’s are. Depp is a walking advertisement for substance abuse and overindulgence, but faces no consequences except for ridicule on gossip sites.

The success of Yeezy is a special case, a marketing miracle, because it’s a perfect storm of a great product that has taken on a life of its own beyond its creator, and a product that is fronted by a man whose long entertainement legacy can make up for his current actions. If even one of these layers were not intact, I don’t think Yeezy would see the kind of success that it currently –and will continue to–experience. I don’t recommend this combination of insane marketing elements for any other label, but for Yeezus, it’s only fitting.