The strange case of Nike’s ‘Write the Future’ campaign

Sometimes, the difference between marketing success and failure can be decided by the narrowest of margins. Even the most beautifully executed, creatively realised marketing campaigns can suffer abject failure due to extenuating circumstances entirely out of the marketer’s hands.

Nike’s ‘Write the Future’ campaign for the 2010 World Cup was just such an example, and as the brand’s adverts premiered on our screen in the build-up to the event in South Africa, the pendulum swung between success and failure with such unnerving regularity it was difficult to determine just what, precisely, was going on…

The campaign

UK-based advertising house Wieden+Kennedy was placed in charge of the lucrative Nike account in the weeks and months before the South African world cup, and the marketers had big plans for the campaign intended to air alongside the matches themselves on British television.

The concept was a fine one, focussing on the ripple effect caused by a single dramatic event in a football player’s career. The ‘Write the Future’ copy seemed to suggest that Nike boots and sportswear would give customers the power to carve their own athletic destinies in a similar way to the sportsmen they idolised on the pitch.

To illustrate this idea, renowned Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu shot a high-concept, high-budget advert starring some of the biggest names in football.

Wayne Rooney, Didier Drogba, Cristiano Ronaldo, Ronaldinho and Fabio Cannavaro all lit up the pitch in dramatic style, writing their own futures to the sound of cheering fans and the driving chords of prog rock anthem Hocus Pocus.

The finished advert was something of a masterpiece; exquisitely shot and directed, Nike’s ‘Write the Future’ ads were enough to make the hair on the necks of football fans stand up with excitement, while a frisson of anticipation rippled through the footballing world ahead of the big event. That is, until the World Cup itself…

The World Cup 

Before a ball was even kicked in anger Nike was able to sense the stirrings of its own ironic undoing. One of the stars of the ‘Write the Future’ campaign – Brazil’s Ronaldinho – was dropped from the Brazil squad after a string of poor performances before the World Cup even started. In panic, Nike was forced to reshoot Ronaldinho’s segment of the advert at great expense, unconvincingly casting fellow Brazilian Robinho in his stead. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the other athletes Nike had chosen to spearhead its campaign proceeded to have a string of singularly disappointing tournaments.

Cannavaro’s Italy were knocked out in the group stages with little more than a whimper, as were Drogba’s Ivory Coast. Cristiano Ronaldo, one of the World’s best players and the fulcrum of his Portugal team, scored just once – against minnows North Korea. Robinho’s Brazil got a little further but failed to ignite the tournament, and the less said about Wayne Rooney’s  World Cup the better.

Nike had claimed that its products could help to ‘Write the Future’ and yet it had seemed to back a series of the wrong horses as a succession of star players limped out of the tournament in callow fashion.

The advert that had once looked so exciting and spectacular now came across as a trifle ludicrous, with both Nike and its chosen players singularly incapable of writing the future, even with a budget of millions behind them. What were potential customers to make of that?

Nike’s ‘Write the Future’ campaign was at once one of the most incredible television adverts of all time and an abject failure, months of preparation and millions of pounds of budget undone by the fickle nature of football itself.

This example shows that the line between success and failure in marketing is indeed a fine one, and even the biggest, most well-prepared and muscularly-financed brands can fall afoul of circumstance – just like the rest of us. If you’re planning to undertake any marketing activities this year then you’re going to need to take such events into consideration, making contingency plans to ensure that you’re not left in the lurch should circumstances conspire against you.

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Ian is the founder of Opportunity Marketing marketing, with over 18 years of experience in successfully setting up marketing departments, creating marketing strategies and implementing these strategies across a wide number of SME companies in both the B2B and B2C sectors through a variety of channels.
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