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What’s The Secret Behind Nike’s “Just Do It” Campaign?

We're all familiar with Nike's "Just Do It" battle cry but what does it mean? Where did it come from? Find the secret behind its success.
by Tom Anderson | Aug 23 2019

Neither the iconic swoosh nor Nike’s ubiquitous slogan, “just do it” mention the name of the sports brand or the fact that they offer sports clothing. And yet, Nike has become one of the world’s highest profile athletic brands. So then, riddle us this: if explicit product descriptions are not essential to helping a brand to rise, what is? According to Denise Lee Yohn’s book What Great Brands Do, the magic lies in inspiring a positive feeling in the customer and finding a way to resonate with their values and desires.

Launched in 1988, the Nike “Just Do It” campaign featured professional and amateur athletes talking about their accomplishments and the emotions they feel as they exercise. One of the first television spots of the campaign featured a video of 80-year-old marathoner Walt Stack (see video below) who explains to viewers how he runs 17 miles every morning. Stories like Walt’s evoke an immediate emotional response in viewers and lead them to ask, “if these athletes can do it, why can’t I?”

The “Just Do It” campaign was so powerful that people began to contact Nike with personal stories about how they “just did it,” whether it was quitting a dead-end job or taking up a healthier lifestyle. The rest, as they say, is history.

“Brand magic lies in inspiring a positive feeling in the customer.”

Once a brand becomes established, however, an ad campaign can signal a shift in these values and desires that create friction against earlier ones. When Nike partnered with Wieden Kennedy for their “Dream Crazy” campaign, they wanted to show how sports figures could change history.

One of the athletes they enlisted was Colin Kaepernick, a former quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers. Kaepernick had become known through speaking out about police brutality and kneeling during the national anthem as a means of nonviolent protest.

Kaepernick’s participation in Wieden Kennedy’s ad campaign sparked a backlash from customers. They felt that Nike had squandered much of the goodwill between the brand and its customers. Some people even burned their shoes in protest.

There would never have been such a strong reaction, if Nike hadn’t formed such a powerful connection with its customers.

Now that we know that a great brand strikes an emotional chord with the customer, how can we emulate this? One suggestion from What Great Brands Do, is empathic research. Here’s a quick crib sheet on what it is, where it’s worked, and how to use it yourself.

What is empathic research and how is it done?

Empathic research is a tool for learning more about what makes your customers tick, plus their expectations of—and responses to—your brand.

To conduct this kind of research, you need to ask emotionally-driven questions, like: “How do you feel when buying this product?” and “What need is satisfied when you buy and/or use this product?”

Brands that have benefited: Pampers. When sales for Europe’s best-selling disposable diaper brand were in decline, the company turned to empathic research and found that it wasn’t the dryness of the diaper that concerned their customers, but rather how soundly their babies slept. Pampers responded with a new product targeted at helping babies get a good night’s sleep and shook their sales out of a long winter’s nap.

How can I get started?

What works for diaper companies can work for you: start looking for an emotional connection with your customers. Via survey, email, focus groups, or even one-on-one interviews, ask your customers empathy-driven questions that will help you drill down to the true, tangible value of your product. From here, you can build an identifiable, clearly positioned, and relatable brand.

Go on, just do it!

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