How Nike Owned the Women’s Moment at the World Cup

When it comes to powerful marketing moments, Nike Inc. might just “Never Stop Winning.”

The brand topped off Sunday’s emotional and emblematic win for the U.S. Women’s National Team (USWNT) at the Women’s World Cup with a stirring video ad, which included the same tagline. The spot featured images of the Nike-sponsored USWNT athletes, including Megan Rapinoe, Carli Lloyd, Alex Morgan and Tobin Heath; it was narrated by a single voice reciting the “I Believe That We Will Win” sports chant.

The ad — which had received over 94,000 likes on Twitter and 43,000 retweets within hours of its reveal — made a formidable statement about the brand’s accelerated focus on the women’s market, a category that has long challenged athletic brands.

“We can feel the World Cup’s energy and impact throughout our growing women’s business,” said Rosemary St. Clair, VP and GM for Nike Women. “Female athletes worldwide are engaging with sport like never before; whether it’s unprecedented sell-through on national team kits, popularity for high-performance bras or global impressions of our campaign, we’re ecstatic about how this summer has contributed to the acceleration of our women’s offense at Nike.”

Nike sponsored 14 teams in the World Cup, including the other women’s finalist, the Netherlands, while nearly two-thirds of the teams at the global sporting event held in Paris wore the brand’s kits. Half the players also wore Nike boots with more total minutes being played in the Swoosh’s boots during this tournament than any other label, according to data from the company.

“The inspiration both in France and around the world doesn’t just fuel momentum for women’s sport today — it catalyzes the entire next generation of female athletes,” said Amy Montagne, VP and GM of Nike Global Categories. “Nike is proud to serve these athletes in new and exciting ways as the landscape of sport continues to evolve.”

The brand’s headline-making moment comes at a time when debate around the treatment of women in sport — and elsewhere — is at an all-time high as the #MeToo movement takes hold.

In March, all 28 players on the USWNT sued the U.S. Soccer Federation over claims that female players are paid less than male players, despite their more consistent and dominant performance. (In the suit, the team alleged that members were not afforded equal playing, training and travel conditions.) The federation denied any discrimination, saying that any alleged pay difference between the teams is “based on differences in aggregated revenue.”

Meanwhile, last week, more than 50 members of Congress — spearheaded by Rep. Jackie Speier and other leaders of the House Democratic Women’s Caucus — wrote a letter to the U.S. Soccer Federation demanding that it fairly pay the USWNT. The letter suggested that female soccer players currently take home a base salary of about $30,000 less than their male counterparts as well as less bonus money for cinching a spot in the World Cup.

For years, Nike has staked its claim — via its provocative marketing, in particular — as a staunch supporter of athletes, including those that have stirred up controversies of their own, such as former football player Colin Kaepernick. The one-time San Francisco 49ers quarterback spawned national debate in 2016 when he kneeled during the national anthem at NFL games to protest police brutality and other racial injustices. Nike made a bold statement when it enlisted Kaepernick for its campaign celebrating the 30th anniversary of “Just Do It” last year.

On the women’s side, the brand has accelerated its empowerment messaging recently — with tennis star Serena Williams as a leading lady — as well as laid out new objectives to boost gender equity on the corporate side of its business.

In an annual corporate report released this May, Nike — which has faced added scrutiny since a New York Times exposé last year purported internal behavior challenges at the company, including a “boys’ club” culture — said it has increased VP-level representation of women by 4% to 36% globally and has reached global pay equity ratio for men to women in the U.S.

Still, it made headlines again in May when another New York Times article suggested that Nike had at one time reduced the payments of pregnant female runners.  Although the brand said it amended its policies last year to resolve the issue, the publicity brought into question whether the Swoosh’s female-centric marketing runs counter to its actual treatment of women.

For what it’s worth, so far, the brand has shown a track record of immunity in the aftermath of public missteps and negative headlines. According to insiders, Nike’s edgy marketing, star-studded endorsement roster (Serena Williams, for example, defended the brand amid “pregnant runner” headlines) as well as its sheer size have all played a role in the company’s ability to ward off long-term business impact in the wake of scandal.

And if it continues to take the right marketing and business steps — as in the case of the World Cup and USWNT — experts suggest it could continue to reap the rewards.

“The World Cup is such a critical event for the sport. The viewership is enormous, and it’s not just soccer fans — it has broad domestic appeal, especially when the USA is winning,” said B. Riley FBR analyst Jeff Van Sinderen. “It would have been impossible to not notice Nike’s presence [at the World Cup] — and, of course, being an American company and linked to the winning team, that can have a substantial impact. These things are tough to measure, but brand perception does tend to show up in product sales, and I would think this was a major positive for [the brand].”

Although Matt Powell, VP and senior industry advisor for The NPD Group, doesn’t anticipate a significant business impact for Nike stemming from the World Cup, he does see a long-term branding play for the company.

“This is about building your brand and your credibility,” Powell added.

Plagued by the early years of female athletic footwear and apparel merchandise being dubbed “pink it and shrink it” versions of men’s products, all of the dominant brands — including Adidas and Under Armour — have espoused new objectives aimed at making bigger statements in the women’s market.

“Brands have to walk the walk every day,” Powell said. “They have to live out their principles. Every day, they have to prove themselves. Nike’s working on that.”

He added, “I think everybody is.”

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