How Regular People Outshined Pros in Nike’s Best Ads of 2016

On Tuesday, Nov. 29, Footwear News will host its 2016 Achievement Awards in New York, honoring the best and brightest in the industry, including Marketer of the Year winner Nike. Read on to learn more about the brand’s accomplishments.

Kobe Bryant’s retirement. LeBron James’ hometown championship. USA Basketball wins gold in Rio. The world of sports supplied plenty of noteworthy moments throughout 2016, and Nike capitalized on them all with engaging, inspirational content. But while much of the messaging was star-studded, its most captivating initiative wasn’t focused on the pros.

“Our greatest successes came when we were able to tell stories that represented both the elite competitor but also the everyday athlete,” said Nike chief marketing officer Greg Hoffman. Enter “Unlimited,” its effort to encourage individuals of all abilities.

The most profound visual from the initiative was “Unlimited You,” a film directed by The Daniels and featuring well-known figures such as Kevin Durant, Neymar Jr. and Serena Williams. But regular men, women and kids were the spot’s real stars.

Ryan O’Rourke, global creative director for Nike’s longtime advertising partner Wieden + Kennedy, explained that “Unlimited You” — narrated by actor Oscar Isaac — offered an atypical dynamic. “We normally don’t break the fourth wall and have athletes talk to narrators and have narrators respond,” he said. “The ad became alive. The narrator thinks he knows what these athletes should be doing, but they push beyond what he expects and he wants to restrain them. Usually in advertising, your narrator doesn’t tell everyone to give up.”

Kyle Maynard Nike Unlimited Will
Kyle Maynard, subject of Nike’s “Unlimited Will” video.
CREDIT: Courtesy of Nike.

Another notable spot from the series was “Unlimited Together,” which paired the men’s and women’s Team USA Basketball squads for the first time. And as part of its focus on the everyday athlete, Nike also released “Unlimited Courage,” about the first openly transgender athlete on a U.S. men’s national team, and “Unlimited Will,” about the first quadruple amputee to climb Mount Kilimanjaro without prosthetic limbs.

The campaign was remarkable on multiple levels: It showed that everyday individuals were as compelling as high-profile athletes. And it was a hit: As of last week, the “Unlimited” films had roughly 480 million views across social media and more than 1 billion TV impressions, according to the brand.

But Nike’s marketing achievements in 2016 went well beyond “Unlimited.” On April 13, “The Conductor” video debuted, delivering an unusual way to celebrate the end of an NBA legend’s 20-year career: with fans and players telling Bryant how much they hate him. “If you look throughout Kobe’s career, he was polarizing, but he had people’s respect because of what he put into the game every single game,” Hoffman said. “‘The Conductor’ brought that to life in a playful way.”

Added O’Rourke, “Normally brands [don’t] embrace selling ‘love the hate’ with an athlete’s retirement. But Kobe is fun to work with because he’s so self aware and embraces that stuff.”

NBA Kobe Bryant Nike The Conductor
NBA icon Kobe Bryant in Nike’s “The Conductor” clip.
CREDIT: Courtesy of Nike.

Most recently, Nike has taken a more serious tone with its “Come Out of Nowhere” campaign.

The initiative debuted in October, on opening night of the 2016-17 NBA season. It was inspired by James’ epic block in Game 7 of the 2016 Finals that helped in clinching the first title for his Cleveland Cavaliers. The campaign was created to show that extraordinary effort can conquer what is deemed hopeless, and it speaks to the deep relationship between sports stars and their fans.

“The headlines for each athlete have a basic truth that everybody in a city agrees with,” O’Rourke said. “Fans are so in love with and connected with those athletes. If you can tap into those emotions, you could have something special.”

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