What does Nike’s new ad campaign say about how sports brands are talking to women?

Nike has created an eight-part short film series as its latest ad campaign aimed at women. What does it say about how the brand, and sports organisations generally, are approaching female audiences?

There have been two broad trends in the way that brands have been addressing women of late: honesty and empowerment. ‘Be who you are, celebrate who you are, you’re fabulous’ is the general message: and, after decades of being told that who we are is not really good enough, it’s not a bad new positioning, if a little galling at times.

In the sports world, this new approach was perfectly encapsulated by the hugely successful This Girl Can campaign. Created by Sport England, it was based on research that revealed that while many women want to be more active, they are put off taking part in sport over fear of being judged, on their appearance and ability. The resulting campaign featured real women working out, sweat, wobbly bits and all. Its tone was lighthearted and self-aware, and, as this article shows, it was not only very popular with audiences, but hugely effective.

Appearing not long after This Girl Can was the release of Inner Thoughts, Nike’s first iteration of its ‘Better For It’ campaign, which this new film series continues. It seems the brand had got the same memo as Sport England – that campaigns for women needed to be more humorous and inclusive. Shot by director Matthew Frost (renowned for a series of gently satirical and/or humorous short films, often featuring major actresses), it features a witty voiceover revealing the thoughts of those working out, insecurities, struggles and all.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A2i365pUONE
Margot Vs Lily trailer

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The new set of films – titled Margot Vs Lily – takes this idea and runs with it, right into a long-form piece of content. The sitcom set up features two adopted sisters, who couldn’t be more different. Lily is a fitness obsessive, who runs a successful YouTube channel, while Margot is a cool and popular slacker, always reaching for a glass of wine and dismissive of Margot’s geeky ways. Only one episode has been released so far and there is a certain amount of scene setting going on in that, but the writing and direction (from Jesse Andrews and Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, and Tricia Brock – who has previously shot episodes of Walking Dead and Breaking Bad – respectively) is sharp and knowing, featuring some amusing observations about the modern world: Margot has just been laid-off after an ill-judged tweet for example, while Lily’s obsession with her subscriber count will be wearily familiar to many.

So what do we learn from the series about marketing to women? Well, firstly that Nike sees humour and understanding as more successful methods of talking to the female demographic, as opposed to more traditional motivational advertising. After the response to the Inner Thoughts spot – which was mostly one of relief that a sports brand was no longer pressurising women to be better, better, better – Nike is clearly taking a punt that this audience will respond and engage with more complex storytelling that develops the theme.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Iggq7fbL6-8&list=PLXXeVD1zsgTX3T1JA8AxaLxayf0zTqDOo
Margot Vs. Lily first episode: Resolutions

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Secondly, we learn that girls are competitive and that’s OK. This is convenient for Nike, as competitiveness – whether with yourself and your demons or others – has been a major brand position for decades. Here the competitiveness isn’t particularly about sport, however, but more about social status. While acknowledging this so clearly in an ad sits a little at odds with the earnest empowerment approach we’ve seen of late (which promotes a sisterhood vibe), it is well-established fuel for great stories, from Jane Austen to Mean Girls. In this opening film, Lily and Margot are so starkly drawn – Margot with her bitchy coolness, never seen without a drink in hand, and Lily furiously high-kicking to all and sundry – that both are kind of annoying. My guess is that they will learn from each other as the series progresses, both becoming more well-rounded, likeable and relatable along the way, but in this opening gambit, viewers are definitely encouraged to pick a tribe and stick with it.

The final observation to take from this new series is that Nike assumes that we are happy to take our online content with a heavy dose of commercialism. As the press release puts it, the series is “entertainment with a built-in invitation to exercise”, and to exercise in Nike products. There is an honesty to this of course – it gets tedious when brands try and pretend that their content isn’t loaded with brand messages – but expecting audiences to sit through what amounts to an hour-long commercial is a big ask. The test will be down to the depth of the storytelling and how it evolves; if Nike can do enough to draw audiences into the Margot/Lily standoff to stick with it to the end, it will be proof perhaps that so long as the stories are good, we don’t mind how branded our content is.

Credits:
Agency: Wieden + Kennedy Portland
ECDs: Joe Staples, Mark Fitzloff
Creative directors: Alberto Ponte, Ryan O’Rourke,
Interactive director: Dan Viens
Creatives: Patty Orlando, Heather Ryder, Darcie Burrell
Production company: RSA Films
Director: Tricia Brock
Co-creators: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, Jesse Andrews
VFX: Jump LA

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