- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 29, 2004

These are fat times for Nike.

The Oregon-based colossus enjoys a still-dominant market share lead over primary competitors Reebok and Adidas. Nike’s stock continues a steady, upward climb, reaching a 52-week high last week at nearly $75 a share. The debut of the first LeBron James signature shoe is a hot seller from coast to coast.

Rather than resting on its laurels, Nike last week released its new “What If?” promotional campaign, an effort company executives call its most extensive advertising push in years.

In the first TV spot of the campaign, Nike corrals seven of its more prominent endorsers and switches athletic roles for all of them. Tennis star Andre Agassi bats for the Boston Red Sox. Serena Williams tries the elevated net of beach volleyball. Arizona Diamondbacks left-hander Randy Johnson bowls against PBA legend Pete Weber. NFL players Michael Vick and Brian Urlacher play hockey. Sprinter Marion Jones competes as a gymnast. And cycling hero Lance Armstrong boxes.

Predictably, Nike is using the campaign, also backed by significant promotion both in retail shops and on the Internet, to sell two new cross-training shoes: Zoom Vapor Trainer and Air Vapor Control. To that end, the new ad bears more than a slight resemblance to the “Bo Knows” campaign of the early 1990s that featured Bo Jackson in a myriad of sports. Portland-based Wieden & Kennedy was Nike’s ad agency then and still is.

But part of “What If?” also owes to Nike flexing a little muscle against its competitors. Even with Nike’s market dominance, the rest of the athletic footwear and apparel industry has made inroads lately, both in terms of finance and marketing.

Reebok recently added to its high-profile licensing deals with the NBA and NFL by landing a contract to supply officially licensed footwear for Major League Baseball. The Massachusetts-based company also signed Yao Ming as an endorser, adding him to a group that includes Allen Iverson and Steve Francis. Adidas is now garnering industry buzz for a clever TV ad that, through the magic of computers, shows Muhammad Ali in his prime boxing against his daughter, Laila.

New Balance remains a steady player beloved by distance runners. Even Puma, left for dead through much of the 1980s and 1990s, is posting a strong resurgence.

“The ‘What If’ campaign asks the question, ‘What if Lance Armstrong was given a pair of boxing gloves instead of a bike as a child?’” said Nancy Monsarrat, director of Nike’s American advertising. “Our belief is that a passionate athlete’s drive to win would translate into success in any sport.”

The ad will run on several major networks, including ESPN, MTV and Fox, until early April. A second effort using the same theme is possible.

The Nike “What If?” effort also follows an emerging industry trend in which ensemble productions like this are gaining favor over ads with a single star. In another Adidas ad featuring Ali, the Greatest of All Time takes a group of stars including Tracy McGrady, David Beckham and sprinter Maurice Greene on a morning run. Gatorade employed the same strategy last year with a spot featuring Yao, Derek Jeter and Peyton Manning, with a sequel now in development.

The basic idea of the multi-star ad is to expand the potential audience reach and safeguard a company’s hefty investment in the promotional campaign, particularly as several once-pristine luminaries like Kobe Bryant now face criminal charges.

Perhaps more important, the new Nike ad shows some welcome levity from a company that many believe has become far too self-important. Most of its ads featuring James, Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods are rather sober affairs that depict those stars as some type of sporting messiahs.

“There is a sense of speed, power and passion with each of these athletes that we are trying to convey, but since we’re putting them out of their traditional environment, there’s also an element of surprise. That’s a big part of this,” said Kelly Leonard, Nike spokesman.

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