david hieatt

Why adidas can’t beat Nike. For now.


The most you can ask of any athlete is to fulfill on their potential. The same thing can be asked of any business. Did it achieve all it could have?

My feeling is adidas has under-performed on what it could have been.  After all, it had a thirty-year advantage over Nike. It was the biggest sports brand in the world for decades. And yet now, even if you combine its sales with Reebok, it is still number 2. So how did Nike do it?

When you first look at both companies, it’s hard to see much of a difference. They both make great products, they both have an amazing history, and they both sponsor some of the finest sports people that have ever lived. So there must be something else that explains how Nike came from nowhere to beat the number 1.

Some key moments in their histories give us some clues. The 1954 World Cup was an important moment for adidas. The final was between Hungary and West Germany. Hungary were huge favourites. But it was raining and the pitch was heavy. But one team had been given the first football boots with screw-in studs to wear. That team was West Germany. Adi Dassler, so legend has it, personally screwed the studs in. And yes, West Germany won. On the back of this invention adidas built a huge business and brand. But importantly, although they brought out some iconic boots like the Copa Mundial and the 1974 World Cup boot, they didn’t carry on looking for the next invention.

Conversely, look at Nike. Bill Bowerman, Co-founder of Nike, had discovered the waffle shoe while experimenting with a waffle maker in his kitchen. And from that, they built a global running shoe company on the back of a huge running trend. But they didn’t stop there. In 1979 they introduced Nike Air system that only they could use. (Unlike the screw-in studs which everyone could). Nike was still looking for the next thing. Nike will always be looking for the next thing.

In 1984, Michael Jordan had to make a choice between two sport shoe companies who wanted to sign him. Nike was one. And adidas was the other. But he had always wore adidas and wanted to stay with them. He went back to adidas and asked them just to match his Nike offer and he would stay with them. They declined. The rest of the story we all know.

One other key moment was Nike’s decision to enter Football. There was no great love of football within Nike. But there was a great desire to be number 1. And they couldn’t be number 1 without football. It is the most popular sport in the world. The football boots they made originally were poor. Even their contracted players would take the adidas stripes off their boots and sew the Nike Swoosh on. But Nike persisted, and their boots are every bit as good as you know who. And now they have perhaps the best footballers in the world wearing their boots. And happy to be doing so.

So when you begin to look more closely at the key differences between the two companies, it starts to come down more to its culture and the ability to communicate that culture, than just who has the better product.

Quite simply, Nike have been able to define its culture. And to communicate it so it matters to the people who work at Nike and the customers who buy Nike. Nike found a way to tell everyone why it does stuff. And people bought into it.

Conversely, adidas have been, on the whole, poor communicators of its culture. And, the truth is we still don’t know what to really feel about them. They have not told us why they do stuff. Yes, we wear their products. We respect their quality. But, they have not connected with us in human terms. We like them. But we don’t love them. Does this matter? Well, yes. It matters because if they had been as great at communicating as making football boots, they would still be number 1.

After 50 years of marketing, I still don’t know what drives adidas.  I don’t know why they get out of bed in the morning. I don’t know what makes them angry. I don’t know what they dream about. I have been a fan since I was a kid, but I have never heard their voice. I have never heard them bare their soul. Ultimately, I don’t know their purpose. Their why.

And without being able to articulate their purpose, it has cost them. Knowing it and understanding it would have motivated their people. It would have given clarity on key decisions in the history of the company.

Maybe, Michael Jordan would never have been allowed to slip through their hands. Maybe, they would have kept on inventing after the screw-in boot. If the people who work for you don’t understand the culture of the company, then how can they tell the world what you stand for. If your people don’t know why you want to win, why would they go the extra mile. That only comes from understanding the cause. Understanding the why.

Nike have understood it well. They understand that sport is about winning. But they understand sport cannot be played without emotion. Sport is full of the ebbs and flows of life. Sport is cruel. Sport is forgiving. Sport is beautiful. Sport is fickle. Sport is surprising. Sport is life and because of that it is all things wrapped up into something as simple as playing ball.

Yes, adidas has suffered from multiple owners. That has not helped them. But it has also suffered from multiple marketing agencies. So it has had a multiple of different voices. That really hasn’t helped, either.

So for me I think the real difference between the two companies is Nike were able to find their voice. They were able to tell their customers why they did it. 'Just Do It' is not a slogan, it has been a mantra for their culture for the people who work there and for the people who buy from them.

A brand that matters has to be built over time. A company’s product, its purpose and how it speaks to the world needs to be consistent if it wants to be all things that it hopes to be. You cannot blow with the wind. You can’t chase a bandwagon. You have to stay true. Patience is required in a world that doesn’t always understand the value of it.

Nike has benefited hugely from compound of interest in terms of voice. Nike has talked with the same voice for a couple of decades now. A single voice seems to run through it. And because it is so consistent, each communication seems to build on top of the last one. They have gained compound interest of voice thanks to their consistency of voice.

They have stuck with Wieden and Kennedy since almost the beginning. And it shows.

So adidas, it’s time to find your Wieden and Kennedy and make a long-term commitment to them. Don’t have more than a handful of people involved in the decision-making process. It will be much better if just one person makes the decisions. You may find that hard, but maybe not as hard as being number 2.

Then go and work out why you are in business. Then start telling the world. Oh, and remember, humans buy from humans. Companies have souls too. And it’s ok to bare that soul. And remember too that sport is emotional. It is not logical. So let go a bit.

Ultimately, we want to feel something about you, as well as buying something from you.

It’s only half-time. But you need to play better in the next half.












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I'm moved to comment on one of your posts for the first time ever. Sure, Nike may be beating Adidas but on a personal note I prefer Adidas over Nike any day. They are more subdued, their products (for me) are better quality and more focused in what they do. I know exactly how I feel about both, regardless of whether you feel Adidas can't tell the world why they're in business.
I understand the Adidas slogan as well as the Nike one... I happen to think they're both a bit rubbish but being "All In" is just as powerful as "Just Do It" in my opinion.
I feel that Nike have spread themselves too thin. To me they feel like the fashion side of sportwear more than the functional side.
Of course a lot of what I've written is opinion and I think much of what you have written is too. We're entitled to our opinions, but I think you've underestimated Adidas.

I totally agree. Great piece you've written. However, I must admit that Adidas got very close to what you discribe with their "Impossible is Nothing" campaign. A shame they didn't stick with it, because for a few years, they actually got that message through. And even though you can argue that Just Do It and IMpossible is Nothing are the same thing, they managed to make it their own.

I hope Adidas' "is All In" goes "All out".

An interesting counter-example is Mastercard vs Visa.

Mastercard's advertising & positioning is not Nike, but this fairly closely applies:

"Nike has talked with the same voice for a couple of decades now. A single voice seems to run through it. And because it is so consistent, each communication seems to build on top of the last one. They have gained compound interest of voice thanks to their consistency of voice."

And yet there is Visa - a company that started later, and seems to scattergun in its voice, and has a brand name that is commonly used for a totally different purpose, often in a negative context. Yet Visa is a mile ahead of Mastercard.

Good reading indeed.

I'm intrigued where Nike go from here. They arrived, they innovated, they challenged and they won.

They're number one.

But when you're number one, top of the tree, the undisputed school champion, do you have to change your tone a bit?

Otherwise do you (and will Nike) risk coming a tincey bit self-satisfied?

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Bonne lecture en effet.

Je suis intrigué où Nike à partir de là. Ils sont arrivés, ils ont innové, ils ont contesté et ils ont gagné.

Ils sont numéro un.

Mais quand vous êtes numéro un, en haut de l'arbre, le champion incontesté de l'école, avez-vous de changer de ton un peu?

Sinon, avez-vous (et Nike) risque de venir un peu Tincey autosatisfaction?

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