Scott McIntyre / The New York Times

February 5, 2020

Nike Won Super Bowl Advertising Without Buying a Commercial

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There were a lot of ways Nike could have chosen to approach this Super Bowl. With the 49ers playing, they could have revisited their Colin Kaepernick campaign. They could have hoped that their status as sponsor of the NFL’s jerseys was sufficient advertising. They could have released an ad packed with celebrities like many other brands during the Super Bowl. But instead, Nike chose to advertise subtly, to the point where you might not have caught it if you weren’t looking for it.

The first thing I noticed when watching the Super Bowl was some of the players’ choice of footwear. In the NFL, the most popular players will often wear cleats customized with artwork of their choosing. However, it’s usually difficult to see exactly what is painted on each player’s cleats, because it’s relatively difficult to make out the details that make the artwork stand out. Kansas City Chiefs running back Damien Williams expertly subverted this by customizing his cleats to look exactly like the Chicago colorway of the Air Jordan 1. I very rarely notice football cleats because they can’t be worn off the field, but these immediately caught my eye. Here I was watching the most important football game of the year, wondering how Nike decided to give Williams one of the most recognizable silhouettes and colorways in sneaker history.  This is the same colorway and style that Michael Jordan wore in his early days with the Chicago Bulls, and revamping it for Super Bowl LIV is a major statement of support towards the Kansas City Chiefs.

Come halftime, Nike managed to steal my attention again. Early on Sunday morning, J Balvin announced his own exclusive sneaker with Jordan brand and teased the first images of his shoe, telling us that you could see it for real during his appearance in the halftime show. By debuting the shoe  at one of the biggest stages in the world, Nike managed to siphon some of the attention away from J Lo and Shakira’s performance, which is no small feat. While the advertising may have been subtle, the shoe was anything but — splashed in fluorescent colors, the sneaker was immediately recognizable on stage.

Even during other company’s commercials, Nike didn’t slow down. During a commercial for Saint Archer Brewing company, Nike athlete Paul Rodriguez showcased his new Nike SB Dunk colorway as the ad depicted him skating around San Diego. Wearing his new “Mexico” colorway, I legitimately thought the commercial was for Nike, depicting the lifestyle of one of Nike’s most prominent figures. It wasn’t until the Saint Archer logo showed up at the end that I realized that it wasn’t a Nike ad at all; still, Nike managed to insert itself into the picture and funnel the commercial’s audience back to itself.

All of this is to say that Nike looks to be one step ahead of the field when it comes to marketing in the digital age. While every every other company was acting out the Ugly Sweater Theory — if everyone is making run of the mill commercials and you make something particularly zaney it will stand out, but when everyone does it, it becomes overkill — Nike did something that actually stood out, in a way no other company could.

But as well done as these advertisements were, are they as successful at reaching large audiences as a standard commercial? I only recognized the J Balvin Jordans or the Paul Rodriguez SB Dunks because I’m a fan of both. Maybe Nike’s goal wasn’t widespread reach, but rather deepening their relationship with their hardcore fans. One of the things that makes the exclusive products like Chicago Jordan 1s so covetable is the history behind it. In a way, Nike’s giving their products another layer. Now if you purchase the J Balvin shoes, there’s lore behind it, the story of their role in one of the best Super Bowl halftime shows of all time. Same thing with Paul Rodriguez’s SB Dunks. So while Nike may not be gathering too many new fans, they’ve done infinitely more to deepen their relationship with their hardcore fans than they could have through a traditional ad campaign.

This history is part of what drives the secondary market for exclusive Nike shoes. Shoes like the Jordan 12 “Flu Game,” Jordan 1 “Banned” and Nike SB Dunk “Pigeon” are famous and worth hundreds of dollars because they have unique stories behind them. But in all of these stories, something happened after the shoe was released to create their history, which is what makes Nike’s 2020 Super Bowl strategy so brilliant — they’re choosing to be proactive and write their own history.

 

Daniel Moran is a junior in the College of Human Ecology. He currently serves as the assistant arts and entertainment editor on The Sun’s board. He can be reached at dmoran@cornellsun.com.