Nike and Neymar – a match made in heaven?

Liam Fox-Flynn looks at how Nike has successfully gate-crashed adidas’ party through clever sponsorship, consistent style and emotional engagement…

Almost as exciting as the announcement of 23 man squads, the release of Panini sticker albums or Shakira’s official tournament anthem (well, two out of three at least) is the unveiling of Nike’s World Cup advert. Invariably bombastic and teeming with footballing galacticos, you’re guaranteed ADHD visuals, cheeky jokes and a swaggering soundtrack. In other words, an enthusiastic diversion that reminds football fans it’s ‘almost time’ and non-football fans that they have a month of sticking their ear-phones in during water-cooler chats.

This year’s offering is no different and it’s a veritable ‘who’s who’ of footballing talent. They even manage to shoe-horn Kobe Bryant and the Hulk in there too, which (if you haven’t seen it – watch it below) gives you an idea of the ostentation and hyper-activity on show. Far from highfalutin; it has an almost child-like energy to it which is charming enough to make you ignore an unctuous Ronaldo smugly flaunting his gorgeous girlfriend and an overwhelming sense of déjà vu.

Exploiting the familiar role-playing of kick-about football which most of us football fans can relate to at some point in our lives (usually in a soggy park with jumpers for goalposts) and displaying an  exuberance and extravagance that makes it difficult to dislike, it’s another success for the brand after previous offerings.

It’s clever from Nike – they’re not official World Cup sponsors (that goes to adidas who recently offered up the more pensive, austere spot, the Dream) but prior to every major international tournament they still manage to create their own showpiece ad which is anticipated like the sporting equivalent of a John Lewis Christmas advert.

It’s not just a case of dining off an iconic name and exercising contractual leverage over obligated players that has gotten them here; Nike have cultivated a consistent tone of voice over the years which has earned them consumers’ permission to parade their stars every few years. It just wouldn’t be the same if their brand ambassadors were journeymen pro’s and that is testament to how they’ve positioned their brand over the last decade.

Nike has made a concerted effort over the years to compete with adidas over the right to be the ‘football brand’. Despite not being official sponsors of a high profile tournament, they’ve been savvy – and instead spent their sponsorship budget on the right guys (Cristiano, for all his vanity, is more photogenic than the unassuming Messi) and they’ve made sure to ‘hijack’ events in an engaging, emotionally relevant way (check this Olympic spot out for a pre-cursor this year’s everyman championing).

Sportsmen, from an advertising perspective, are no guarantee for success. For every Thierry Henry, successfully giving Renault some va-va-voom,  there’s a soporific superstar trying their hand at acting that elicits cringes and yawns from viewers. The sheer number of celebrity endorsements means that  sticking a well-known face in your ad can actually have a detrimental impact on messaging and perceptions of the brand.

Our tracking database indicates that ads with celebrities can be more salient than those not containing a well-known face; but that’s not really enough. People need to know which brand they are endorsing and in a saturated market that’s the hard part. The brand needs to be integral to the story whether there is a celebrity or not, which will guard against the very real danger that the celebrity overshadows both the brand and its message. Usain Bolt has numerous endorsements but chances are that you’ll mostly remember his Virgin partnership, if only for the rubicund colour cues or similarly famed owner by his side. What also helps that association is Bolt’s blithe personality coupled with Virgin’s irreverent, cheeky tone of voice – a great example of when a celeb is both relevant and a good fit for the brand.

But what happens if your celebrity’s star fades? Ask Gillette, their former poster-boys fell from grace en masse – Roger Federer and Thierry Henry saw dips in form while Tiger Woods, who became persona non-grata after issues in his personal life, also saw his stock fall. They were promptly dropped for the very different (and much less mercurial) triumvirate of Adrien Brody, Gael García Bernal and André 3000. Nike isn’t exempt either – their 2010 ad saw most of their ad’s protagonists enjoy poor World Cups prompting claims of a ‘curse’. Football being a capricious game however; a return to form can absolve past misdemeanours and football fans can have surprisingly short memories should performances permit (just ask Wayne Rooney, Luis Suarez or that footballing icon and institution, Ryan Giggs).

Inevitably though, the Nike ad succeeds because the hero isn’t Ronaldo or Neymar or Pirlo or even Zlatan. It’s the kid in the park who takes the decisive penalty and all the resulting plaudits. Where it works, and so many ads with similar conceits fail, is that it doesn’t rely on a celeb to create a connection with the viewer; it uses them to get noticed. The kick-about role playing, the badinage over football boots, even the strange, slightly, socially inept goalie – that’s what engages. That’s what people relate to.

It’s not perfect; it’s a bit like the advertising equivalent of an Irish Setter (adorably energetic if slightly  daft) but it’s an encouraging sign in a climate of chilly, elitist sports ads that showcase six-packs and isolate normal viewers. It’s also better than this.

This week’s blog is courtesy of Liam Fox-Flynn, at Ipsos ASI UK. Tara is on holiday. At Ipsos ASI, we help our clients make things simply,better. Follow Ipsos ASI on Twitter @IpsosASIUK.