Anybody who knows me knows that if there’s one way to my heart, it’s through football. When I was little, I desperately wanted to be a footballer. As I grew older, I quickly realised that I was nowhere near good enough (terrible in fact) to make it big, but that doesn’t mean that the dream doesn’t still exist somewhere in the back of my mind. I feel this is a dream that many boys (and increasingly, girls) have had at one point in their lives, and in my opinion, this is an idea that Nike plays up to, massively.
In 2015, Nike reported a company record global revenue of $30.6 billion, and has already surpassed that figure this year with just under a month still to go. That’s almost double that of their closest competitors, Adidas ($18.1 billion), and almost ten times that of their next closest, Puma ($3.6 billion). They came 19th in Forbes’ ‘World’s Most Valuable Brands’ list for 2016 (the first apparel industry company on the list), and can boast partnerships with Roger Federer, LeBron James, Serena Williams, Cristiano Ronaldo, to name but a few. So why does Nike do so well?
Social modelling and celebrity endorsement
Social learning theory (Bandura, 1977) dictates that people can learn to model their behaviour on others simply through observation, which can lead to imitation behaviour. Probably the most famous demonstration of this was the ‘bobo doll’ experiment (Bandura, Ross and Ross, 1963), in which children were shown videos of adults beating up a bobo doll, and when presented with the doll themselves, copied this aggressive behaviour. Now, not everybody can be a footballer, but you can definitely dress like one. As a kid, this was one of the main ways of becoming just a little bit closer to one of your role models – I loved Thierry Henry, so naturally I wanted to wear the boots that he wore. Makgosa (2010) found that vicarious role models have a significant influence on teenage purchase intentions, so it may come as no surprise to see that Nike pushes this idea so heavily. Below is a great advert Nike put out just before the 2014 FIFA World Cup, illustrating just this effect: ordinary guys playing football, transforming into their favourite footballers with the newest kits and boots.
From a much more simplistic perspective, Nike are also using an incredible amount of celebrity endorsement in this ad. The benefit of this is two-fold: firstly, it reinforces this idea that these products are good enough for the best footballers in the world (so why shouldn’t I buy them?), and second, it allows Nike to flex their muscles as arguably the most powerful sports brand on the planet – another way of saying ‘look how many of the top sportsmen we can put in one advert’. This effect is backed up by research: Bush, Martin and Bush (2004) found that the inclusion of celebrity athlete endorsement can have a positive effect on adolescents when it comes to making brand choices.
This also ties in nicely with ‘source credibility’. This concept posits that people are more likely to trust and act upon a message that comes from a reliable source. Goldsmith, Lafferty and Newell (2000) found that endorser credibility had the strongest influence on consumers’ attitudes towards brands, so naturally, for Nike to place so many high profile athletes at the top of their respective fields in their adverts indicates to the consumer that their source is very credible.
Social proof and mere exposure
Below is another Nike advert. This one is a bit older, and personally it’s my favourite because it features quite a few Arsenal players… Nike really knows how to get to me. This ad combines two techniques perfectly to subtly persuade you to purchase Nike goods. Social proof (initially researched by Sherif in 1935) is a phenomenon which suggests that people assume the actions of others as a way of determining the correct behaviour, and the mere exposure effect (Zajonc, 1968) purports that we prefer things to which we feel more familiar. If you watch closely, you’ll notice that every single piece of clothing worn in the advert is (surprise, surprise) branded by Nike. This may come as no surprise in an advert primarily featuring footballers, but the devil is in the detail: even the girl that the star of the advert meets underwater is wearing a Nike bikini. These details may seem insignificant, but in my opinion, Nike is trying very hard to reinforce the idea that everybody wears Nike clothes, so you should too (social proof), as well as placing their famous little tick onto everything that they possibly can in order to increase the consumer’s familiarity towards it (the mere exposure effect).
Theory of planned behaviour
Many of Nike’s advertisement campaigns can be thought of in terms of Azjen’s theory of planned behaviour. The theory (pictured below) suggests that when deciding to perform any intentional behaviour, three factors influence our decision.
The first of these is ‘subjective norms’. Due to the fact that, as I said earlier, Nike crams their ads full of professional sportsmen, and put their tick onto all of the background details (like the bikini), this increases our familiarity with the brand, and also gives us the impression that Nike is worn by so many professionals, which increases the norms surrounding the brand. We all want to fit in, so we try our best to conform to these social norms.
The second is ‘attitude’. Obviously, in order to buy something, we have to have a positive attitude about the product. Nike increases the likelihood of us having this positive attitude towards their brand by using celebrity endorsement to convince us that the clothes they sell are good enough for the best sportsmen in the world.
Finally, the third is ‘perceived behavioural control’. In order to invest in something, we have to believe that we have the ability to, otherwise the intention is lacking, so the behaviour will not take place. So, as much as Nike are pushing this idea that their brand is good enough for the best athletes in the world, they need to also stress that it’s attainable for the man on the street. In the first advert, they do this by staging the ‘match’ between a group of normal teenage boys, who then transform into footballers once they have their Nike gear. In the second, it is reinforced by the ‘point-of-view’ style, placing you in the shoes of the star of the advert.
Once all three of these aspects are present, the intention is formed (that is, to buy Nike gear), and the behaviour takes place (funds permitting…).
Hidden in plain sight amongst all of these persuasive techniques is Nike’s main slogan: ‘Just Do It’. On the surface, this can be seen as a ‘carpe diem’-esque motto, simply encouraging consumers to go and play sports (provided they’re wearing Nike gear, of course). However, I think an ulterior motive may be in play. In Daniel Kahneman’s book, ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’, he discusses the idea that within the mind there are two systems that drive the way in which we make decisions: System 1 and System 2. System 1 can be thought of as the faster, more instinctual approach, whereas System 2 is more deliberate, effortful and considered. We should always use System 2 when deliberating a purchase to ensure we get the best deal we can, but when it comes to consumerism, companies generally want you to use System 1 as much as possible. This is why deals will always be phrased in a way which highlights how much money you could save rather than how much money you would have to spend, in order to prompt System 1 into making the quick decision to buy a product. If I personally were to stop and use System 2 more often, and think carefully about whether I really need to buy 3 boxes of flapjacks just because I would make a saving overall, then maybe I wouldn’t have to have the difficult conversation with my family that I’m anticipating about how nobody is getting anything for Christmas this year. In my opinion, Nike (in an albeit sneaky way) is trying to tell you to stop using your System 2, and just consume. ‘Just buy our new trainers’. Maybe I’m just being cynical, but it’s certainly food for thought.
To summarise, I suppose what I’m trying to say is that the people that Nike pay to do their marketing are pretty good at their jobs. Whether we like it or not, we all fall prey to the plethora of dirty, underhand techniques that big companies use to get us to buy their products, but the seven-year-old version of me particularly appreciates the way that Nike does it. I struggled to keep my discussion down to just two ads, so if you enjoyed them, and have time for one more, I’ve put one below that I really like. Thanks for reading.
Ajzen, I. (1991). The theory of planned behavior. Organizational behavior and human decision processes, 50, 179-211.
Bandura, A., Ross, D., & Ross, S. A. (1963). Imitation of film-mediated aggressive models. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 66, 3.
Bandura, A., & Walters, R. H. (1977). Social learning theory.
Bush, A. J., Martin, C. A., & Bush, V. D. (2004). Sports celebrity influence on the behavioral intentions of generation Y. Journal of Advertising Research, 44, 108-118.
Goldsmith, R. E., Lafferty, B. A., & Newell, S. J. (2000). The impact of corporate credibility and celebrity credibility on consumer reaction to advertisements and brands. Journal of advertising, 29, 43-54.
Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. Macmillan.
Makgosa, R. (2010). The influence of vicarious role models on purchase intentions of Botswana teenagers. Young Consumers, 11, 307-319.
Sherif, M. (1935). A study of some social factors in perception. Archives of Psychology (Columbia University).
Zajonc, R. B. (1968). Attitudinal effects of mere exposure. Journal of personality and social psychology, 9, 1.