Breaking good | How Nike’s moonshot shook up the sponsorship space

  • Mainstream media impressions outweigh negative reaction from purists
  • Shoe sales will be the key performance metric
  • Rights-holders like the IAAF could incorporate similar stunts into their events

On Saturday May 6 at 5.45am in Monza, Italy, Eliud Kipchoge, Zersenay Tadese and Lelisa Desisa made a courageous attempt to break the two-hour marathon barrier. First over the line was Kipchoge, who finished in a time of 2:00:25. Although his run didn’t break the two-hour target, it was still an astonishing two minutes 32 seconds faster than the existing Marathon world record, set at the 2014 Berlin Marathon by Dennis Kimetto.

If the timing and location of Kipchoge’s blistering run seem unusual, that’s because he was not competing in a traditional marathon. Instead, he was spearheading a Nike-led initiative called Breaking2, which was first announced in late 2016 but has been in development since 2014. Despite failing to break the two-hour barrier, Kipchoge’s run is widely regarded as having been a marketing masterstroke for the US sportswear brand, with around 5.2 million people tuning in to watch it live on social media platforms, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. Even arch-rival Adidas tweeted Kipchoge to congratulate him.

Jonny Collin, account manager at sports and entertainment marketing agency Synergy, calls Breaking2 “a huge win” for Nike. “This is their Just Do It ethos on perhaps the biggest stage we’ve seen,” Collins says. “Every runner, no matter their ability, understands the desire to run as fast as possible, which is why Breaking2 worked so well.”

Octagon chief strategy officer Simon Wardle agrees. “The beauty of Breaking2 is that the message is just so simple and relatable,” he says. “No ordinary runner is ever going to run a two-hour marathon, but they do understand the idea of achieving goals, whether that’s a 5K personal best or a sub-four-hour marathon.”

The campaign also gets the thumbs up from Andy Kenny, head of CAA Sport Consulting UK, who observes how “adidas and Puma have made big inroads into the sports footwear market by signing up lifestyle influencers like Kanya and Rihanna.” Kenny says: “So I think Nike has been very shrewd by saying they stand for performance, innovation and athletics. It’s good for the brand.”

PICTURE: The Breaking2 runners wore Nike Zoom Vaporfly Elite shoes (Getty Images)


The Nike initiative has caused some consternation within the running sector. For instance, it is reported that the company paid the three Breaking2 runners not to take part in the Boston or London Marathons. There has also been resistance from running purists, unimpressed by the heavily-controlled conditions of the event. But Wardle doesn’t think Nike will be unduly concerned: “An event like this transcends the running media,” he says. “Purists may not like it, but the benefits to Nike in terms of mainstream media impressions far outweigh this concern.”

In media terms, the event was certainly a success. But Synergy’s Collin doubts this is how Nike will ultimately measure the success of Breaking2. “Online viewing figures and editorial coverage only tell half the story,” he says. “Nike doesn’t need to worry about brand awareness or consideration – they’re global running market leaders. They are a retailer, so ROI will be judged on units sold of the trainer used at Monza.”

Jeremy Edwards, director of content at sponsorship market analyst Activative, agrees. “This project aims to reinforce Nike’s brand (its essence and values) and will be measured according to brand metrics,” Edwards says. “But, primarily, this is a product launch campaign, so it will stand or fall according to unit sales.”

PICTURE: The Breaking2 race (Getty Images)

Sales impact

MKTG managing partner Charlie Wylie takes a similar line – but with one key proviso. “The key metric on this should be around sales and preference,” he says. “However, this comes with a caveat. The shoes actually used in the Breaking2 attempt (the Vaporfly Elite) will not be on sale, but a scaled back version will be.”

To elaborate on Wylie’s point, two consumer versions of the Vaporfly Elite are being released in June at $150 (€164) and $250 price points. So analysts will have to wait until late summer to see if Breaking2 had any sales impact. “It was a fantastic marketing campaign to shift the dial in terms of association with performance,” Wylie says. “But one thing I will be looking out for is whether Nike’s four-per-cent energy-saving claim for the Vaporfly appeals to a mainstream audience or just serious runners.”

While the Monza version of the shoes isn’t for sale, Nike has come up with a way of sustaining the buzz around them. It has organised a competition for people who want to get their hands on a pair. Firstly, they have to download the Nike+ Run Club app. Then, they have to run a 5k – either on May 7 or May 14. At this point, they are entered into a draw to win a free pair of the Vaporfly Elites.

Looking more broadly at activation, Wylie says Nike were right not to drag the campaign out over years. “They concentrated their activity into a short period to create a more impactful story and conversation,” he says. “The digital aspect of the campaign was run well. The hashtag and social spend appeared well thought out and the numbers on social streaming were impressive. It felt like a proper campaign activated through the line.”

Edwards is also positive, saying: “The sheer audacity of the stunt has generated massive event excitement and engagement.” For Edwards, a key strength of the campaign has been the effective use of video to support the attempt. “#Breaking2 was an impressive, deeply integrated, multi-platform campaign,” he adds. “The work was nuanced, with the content running across the various strands neatly suited to the platforms it played out across. The brand has also teamed up with National Geographic to produce a documentary that will air later in the summer. If I had a criticism, it would be the length of time between the initial pre-event launch phase and the very short time between the announcement of the time/date of the attempt and the race.”

PICTURE: The Breaking2 event (Getty Images)


Of course, the sport business sector’s fascination with Breaking2 is not just ambition of the event itself – but the ramifications for other stakeholders. Most observers have interpreted adidas’ congratulatory tweet as altruistic. But it’s also a reminder that they are engaged in the race to break the two-hour barrier as well. “Adidas launched its own adizero sub2 boost shoe at the Tokyo Marathon in February,” Wardle says. “So I’d expect them to make an attempt on two hours in the near future. This story has the potential to run and run.”

The question is: Can adidas claw back the initiative or has Nike’s Monza initiative effectively secured ownership of this space? Wardle thinks the winner will be the brand that breaks the two-hour barrier, noting: “Everyone remembers Roger Bannister and the four-minute mile, but nobody else.”

Kenny is not so sure, arguing that – in branding terms – the breaking of the barrier will be less significant than the way in which the brands engage consumers. “Adidas may be able to win this battle but they’ll also need to tell a great story,” Kenny says. “They’ll have to find a way to communicate a point of difference.”

If Nike and adidas do embark on a head-to-head clash then it raises questions for marathon organisers and the IAAF about how to respond. While it is understandable that the IAAF is not willing to sanction Kipchoge’s run as an official world record, what happens if the Nike versus Adidas showdown becomes the priority for leading long-distance runners in the next couple of years – taking precedence over more traditional marathon events?

Kenny’s view is that “brave and innovative initiatives do sometimes get pushback, but rights-holders really should embrace anything that raises the profile of a sport,” he adds. “It’s great to have partners that want to promote a sport on your behalf.”

Wylie concurs by saying: “There is a risk of alienating traditional rights-holders, but the argument is that it is opening up the sport to a new, younger audience and so therefore is good for the sport.”

PICTURE: This year’s Nitro Athletics Series (Getty Images)


Octagon’s Wardle recalls being in Australia early this year when Athletics Australia teamed up with sprinter Usain Bolt to launch the Nitro Athletics athletics-based sports entertainment series. “That was a real success and shows how innovations in format can really revitalise the appeal of a sport,” Wardle says. “I think the interesting challenge for bodies like the IAAF is whether they can take advantage of ‘moonshots’ like Breaking2, working with them and incorporating them into their own activities.”

Collin sees room for the two models to co-exist “as long as elite athletes are not routinely choosing brand events over competition.” However, he does see one trend that rights holders need to learn from.

“They might be concerned about brands placing greater emphasis on their relationships with athletes and ambassadors than they do traditional governing bodies and global competitions,” he says. “Just as Breaking2 focused on Nike athletes, so their Fifa World Cup campaigns focus on Wayne Rooney, Neymar Jr, Cristiano Ronaldo et al. It will be interesting to see how rights-holders respond and prove they deliver greater value for their partners than individual athletes.”

There may also be lessons for broadcasters from Breaking2. At the end of 2016, Ampere Analysis released a compelling report in which it suggested that millennials are losing interest in live sport, pointing to declines in American football’s NFL and Premier League viewing as support for its contention. Is there, then, a partial answer in the approach taken by Nike? “Broadcasters are inevitably going to be wary about running programming that looks too much like a branded commercial,” Kenny says. “But the scale of the audience on digital media does deserve their attention.”

PICTURE: The Breaking2 race (Getty Images)


So, what’s next for Nike? Well another attempt at the two-hour marathon is on the cards – as is a broadening of the programme to include female athletes and average athletes. As for other so-called moonshots, Matt Nurse, vice-president of the Nike Sport Research Lab, has suggested that the brand may try other events that it help athletes to achieve extraordinary feats.

And what about other brands? Activative’s Edwards says “more and more brands are seeking to devise, execute and fund (or co-fund) thrilling live events that they can own and control.”

In Edwards’ view, technology enables brands to create such events and connect directly to consumers in real-time without having to work with broadcasters or traditional event owners. However, he warns that there are several strategic risks – something that a number of his industry peers agree with.

CAA Sports’ Kenny says: “Our client Betfair had a lot of success when it worked with cyclist Victoria Pendleton on the Switching Saddles campaign. But the Breaking2 kind of event is only going to be right for a few brands. Firstly, there aren’t many opportunities of this magnitude. And even if you find one they are expensive long-term projects with no guarantee of paying off – which is not the message most chief marketing officers want to hear. On top of that, you need a credible role. If your brand DNA isn’t right, consumers will see through you.”

MKTG’s Wylie says: “It is much easier for an endemic brand such as a Nike or Adidas. The storytelling is deeper and more authentic for a brand that can demonstrate its impact on the activity.” Exceptions include the likes of Red Bull, which has permission from consumers to play in this space, because “it has a history of similar initiatives and a fantastic content creation positioning.” Wylie adds: “The challenge is that these activities will need to get more and more extreme to satisfy the edge of the seat feeling you got through something like Red Bull Stratos.”

Synergy’s Collin also stresses that “the key is scale and authenticity,” before adding: “Guinness World Records aren’t enough – you need to set out to achieve something truly iconic and preferably never done before – and you need to have earned the right to attempt it in the first place. Breaking2 would not have had the success it has enjoyed if not for Nike’s running heritage and reputation for innovation. Nike has earned the right to talk about elite performance and distance running.”

PICTURE: The Breaking2 race (Getty Images)

EXTRA: Engagement

Breaking2 was shown live on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, attracting an audience of about 5.2 million. There were also live and behind-the-scenes moments on Instagram, as well as several other digital videos for fans who wanted to dig deeper into the story. Figures from Brandwatch show widespread social mentions for the words/phrases: Nike, #Breaking2 and Vaporfly Elite. As reported in DigiDay, Brandwatch senior data analyst Kellan Terry said #Breaking2 had a positive sentiment of 87 per cent. Activative’s Jeremy Edwards says: “The early statistics look genuinely impressive. #Breaking2 trended worldwide and generated 30 million impressions in the first 24 hours after the race, although the time slot for the event that was ideal for running performance probably wasn’t ideal for live viewing.”
Breaking2 comes at a good time for Nike, which saw its stock price hit an 18-month low at the end of 2016. The main reason for this, identified by CAA Sport’s Andy Kenny, is the rising fortunes of adidas and Puma in the US. Adidas in particular has enjoyed success with its retro “originals” line, which saw sales increases of 60 per cent in the first half of 2016. Nike will be hoping that Breaking2 stimulates sales of its new Vaporfly product.
Nike’s expenditure on sponsorships and endorsement has rocketed in recent years. In 2013 it was $3.6bn and in 2015 it was $6.19bn. In 2016 this figure rose by 52 per cent to an incredible $9.4bn (Nike’s own figures). Some of this rise is put down to traditional sponsorship rights partnerships, but talent endorsements like Breaking2 are also an escalating cost. Expect this figure to smash the $10bn barrier this year.

EXTRA: Nike’s preparations

Nike did everything in its power to give the Breaking2 athletes the best chance of success. Ahead of the event, the company used state-of-the-art science around nutrition and hydration to ensure the three runners were as well prepared as possible for the event. Even the tiniest details were taken into account, such as whether Eliud Kipchoge should have a beetroot bar with carbohydrates as opposed to beet juice as a pre-run meal.
During training, Nike’s science team provided each athlete with GPS watches and heart-rate monitors to track their training load. In addition, each athlete was connected to internal Nike performance prediction analysis software. This helped facilitate athlete learnings, as well as forecast future performances.
When it came to the run itself, the choice of footwear was, of course, crucial – with the Nike Zoom Vaporfly Elite shoes specifically designed to maximise performance in a marathon.
The choice of time and location was important. The Monza F1 track at 4.45am was identified by Nike analysts as providing the optimal running conditions in terms of temperature, wind resistance, air pressure, cloud cover and surface efficiency. Race strategy was also key. Drop-in pacemakers were used to help keep the attempt on track. They also ran in a formation that reduced the wind drag on the three main runners.

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