Believe in copywriting

Both Nike and John Lewis are hitting the headlines with controversial new creative work. But at the eye of these two branding storms, there should be one small area of calm agreement. The writing is brilliant.

Two multi-billion branding behemoths have made power moves this week.

Firstly, there is Nike unveiling its sponsorship with Colin Kaepernick, the take-a-knee quarterback at the centre of the culture wars.

Secondly, there is John Lewis & Partners invoking two pop culture fail-safes – Dougal Wilson and Bohemian Rhapsody – to announce its new partnership message and co-branding with Waitrose.

In the case of Nike, the debate is already raging about whether it’s an inspired piece of purpose-led branding bravery, or a cynical monetisation of resistance.

And in the case of John Lewis, most of the focus will be on the direction of the ad (Dougal Wilson doing what he does brilliantly) and the visual side of the Pentagram rebranding (the monotone John Lewis subliminally channelling Project Fear).

But at the eye of these two branding storms, there should be one small area of calm agreement. The writing is brilliant.

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From Colin Kaepernick’s Twitter

Whatever you think of Nike’s motives, and whether or not you believe it’s the right strategic move, the headline is an example of an entire $28billion brand teetering on whether the copywriter gets the next word in the sentence right. You could have exactly the same strategic thought and art direction, but if one nuance in the copy is wrong, it would be a fatal flaw.

What’s so good about the line? Firstly, the opening echoes the standard Nike voice of using a direct imperative, even following the same three-word pattern. Just do it. Believe in something. Then the second part nails that powerful balance of ‘something/everything’, in a way that does what a good rhetorical device always does – it makes it sound like it makes sense, even before you work out whether it actually makes sense.

What could have gone wrong with the line? Lots of small things – for example, a comma in the middle instead of a full stop would have made it sound less Nike. But also some bigger things. If the second line said ‘Even if it costs you everything’, it would mean the same thing, but would also invite the snapback: ‘Yeah right, wonder how much he got paid for that ad.’ You can make the same smart reply with ‘sacrificing’, but it’s not an open goal in the same way. ‘Sacrificing’ has a religious quality that goes well with ‘Believe’ and shifts it away from associations with money.

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Serena Williams also features in Nike’s 30th birthday campaign. Image: Twitter

Aside from the wording, there’s also the relationship of line and image. The primary way in which you read the line is as a statement about Colin Kaepernick – he is the hero of the ad, with Nike as the celebrator of the hero. That’s a better place for a brand to be, rather than casting itself as the hero or ‘leader of the conversation’ (Hello Dove, Hello Pepsi, Hi Heineken). Of course, the secondary message is that Nike is the hero too, by risking its own brand in order to take a side, but it matters that it’s the secondary message.

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