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Pandemic fatigue? Nike has a creative antidote

Updated: Aug 14, 2020

Ever since Just Do It was created in 1988, Nike ads have become almost as famous as its shoes. In fact, those motivational Just Do It memes never get old. This Shia LaBeouf Star Wars parody is my personal favourite.

Just Do It is so valuable, iconic and central to Nike’s brand identity it can’t let us forget those three words. Which is why the campaign is regularly refreshed with new executions, such as 2018’s Dream Crazy narrated by Colin Kaepernick to celebrate 30 years of Just Do It [see my post here for what I think about the controversy around this campaign].

Now the third act in its latest campaign has been released: Nike’s short film, You Can’t Stop Us, is a truly stunning piece of creative work.

Narrated by American professional soccer player Megan Rapinoe, it features 24 different sports, 53 athletes, and some 4,000 action sequences masterfully edited down to 72 final scenes pairing the movements of 36 athletes across time, history and ethnicity. The result is a montage that “underscores commonalities shared by athletes around the world” says Nike and “celebrates sport as a source of inspiration”.

From a commercial perspective, You Can’t Stop Us couldn’t be more strategic. How do you catch the attention of savvy, online shoppers spending record amounts of iso-time consuming videos and social media? You create a video designed for social media.

With more than 45 million views on YouTube at the time of writing and more than 20 million views on Twitter, it’s clearly working.

Using the Beliefonomics™ framework as our lens, let’s take a look at what we can learn from Nike about using storytelling to drive commercial advantage during the pandemic.

First, tune into the zeitgeist, or mood of the times; then choose whether you want to empathise and align with it, or deliver a counterpoint.

If you want to change someone’s beliefs, values or worldview, behavioural economics tells us you must skew heavily towards emotional engagement over rational arguments. As I write in Beliefonomics,

“In business, we rarely acknowledge that emotions, sentiment and relationships can influence contracts worth thousands, if not millions.”

Counterpoint emotions matter

The interesting thing in the case of You Can’t Stop Us is Nike’s use of counterpoint emotions to effect change.

What do I mean by counterpoint emotions?

Consider the overwhelming emotions of 2020: anxiety, sadness, stress, negativity, uncertainty, loneliness, and worse. Now, pause for a moment and watch the Nike ad…even if you’ve seen it before, watch it again now and notice what emotions it’s likely designed to trigger for you.

For me it bursts with higher-level emotions like nostalgia, belonging, hope and resolve. [read more about why emotions matter in storytelling in my blog post here].

You Can’t Stop Us is a creative antidote to the dominantly negative emotions experienced by a global audience experiencing pandemic fatigue. Critically, it’s also avoided the sappy, faux-sympathetic approach copied relentlessly by brands in the first half of 2020. Remember this video? Every COVID-19 Commercial is Exactly the Same.

Nike is different, and successful in my view, because it’s exactly the opposite. It embraces positivity and hope in a credible way.

Powerfully scripted lines like, “We’re never alone, and that is our strength … when things aren’t fair … no matter how hard it gets .. we’ll always come back stronger” are poster child examples of expressions with counterpoint emotions. Pairing ordinary people and sports stars in seamlessly shared scenes is designed to visually shatter the “us vs. them” paradigm.

Notably, Coca-Cola is also on trend with counterpoint emotions. Open Like Never Before is a creative execution from the UK launched recently to challenge negativity.

At a time when we’re painfully separated from one another, brand leaders at Nike and Coke are using storytelling to build emotional connections with customers that transcend cynicism and feelings of loss.

Stay true to purpose

Now, before you start directing your teams to be more positive, let me emphasise the next equally important truth: campaigns like these only work if the brand uses emotions which are authentically aligned to its core values and purpose.

Put simply, it has to instantly ring true in the hearts and minds of the audience.

I’m not alone in loathing false sympathy or understanding from an unfamiliar or untrusted brand. I don’t need fake compassion and empathy from my barber, pet food supplier, dry cleaner or ISP.

To quote 'Beliefonomics' again (p.51):

Brand story is not a manufactured reality, divorced from customer experience or changed with every new marketing director. The brand story is the central narrative that acts as an organisation’s north star, informing business strategy and creatively inspiring every brand and marketing campaign.”

A clearly articulated purpose must be your creative cornerstone. Nike says on its website: “Our purpose is to unite the world through sport to create a healthy planet, active communities and an equal playing field for all.

Virtually every creative expression we’ve seen from Nike for decades has aligned with that purpose. If you’re curious, Business Insider has a handy overview of how Nike ads have consistently tapped into the social zeitgeist since 1988, tackling issues from HIV, to gender, ageism, disabilities, role models and equality.

Now to be fair, no CMO I’ve interviewed or worked with over the past decade enjoys telling the CEO or board, ‘We’ve developed this great campaign, but it will take 30+ years to see the final results.” Real change takes time, but you need something that works now.

The answer is found by asking: what is my brand’s purpose? Get that right and the process of creating stories that unlock profit and purpose becomes much simpler.

Mark Jones is a master storyteller, brand strategist and author of Beliefonomics - Realise the true value of your story. Contact him to explore how storytelling can advance your profit and purpose. Book Mark to speak at your next virtual or in-person event here.

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