Nike gets away from its brand with "influencers" campaign

Today's Wall Street Journal has an article, "Running Underground: To Sharpen Nike's Edge, CEO Taps 'Influencers,'" about Nike's new emphasis on popular culture to shape its brand.

As is usual when a brand gets ruined, the CEO, Mark Parker, is answering to Wall Street--he has promised a 50% increase in revenue by 2011--and therefore needs to turn to "fickle, style-conscious consumers" rather than the performance oriented athletes around which the company has built its brand.

The article says Nike "hasn't lost its traditional focus on pure sports"--it is acquiring British soccer brand Umbro PLC--but needs to "broaden and deepen its appeal--even among non-athletic types."

The CEO says things like "How do you keep an edge, a crispness, a relevance?"

As a result, Nike has worked with characters like Los Angeles tattoo artist "Mister Cartoon," who has designed six lines of limited edition shoes for the company. It has also collaborated with New York graffiti artist Lenny Futura, industrial designer Marc Newson, and Brazilian muralists Os Gemeos.

The idea is to create "an insider's buzz that widens out as it is discovered by consumers closer to the mainstream."

Will it work?

I don't think so. This seems to me like an approach that is close to the CEO's heart--says the Journal, "the CEO is drawn as naturally to art and culture as he is to sport"--but not close at all to the brand.

There are a few lessons here:

1. The CEO must be the brand champion, but the danger is that he or she will substitute personal preference or "gut instinct" for sound brand-based marketing research into how best to lead the brand forward. Nike's CEO likes popular culture, so he is leading the company in that direction. Big mistake.

2. When companies start answering to Wall Street, in the drive for profit, they can tend to lose the features that made their brand distinctive in the first place. I don't have an answer for this one but it is a real problem.

When you get away from the brand, you are in trouble.