Historically, in the world of advertising and marketing, there have been two rival companies vying for leadership in their sector. The duality has been present in all areas, and the battle to win the favor of the consumer has led companies to give their best.
If we think for a moment, the same examples will probably come to mind: Coca-Cola and Pepsi, McDonald’s and Burger King, Nintendo or Sega, or more recently Apple and Samsung. All of them are companies with a long historical background that have brought their battle for being the most valued company into the realm of advertising and marketing.
In Eslogan Magazine, we will review some of these historic rival brands and delve into how they got to where they are. Today, we will analyze the rivalry between Nike and Adidas, a historic rivalry.
The Rivalry of Nike and Adidas: Origins of Both Brands
To analyze the rivalry of Nike and Adidas, we must first understand their origins. Let’s start with the facts. Adidas was founded in 1949 by Adi Dassler in Herzogenaurach, Bavaria. Before that, the Dassler brothers began working in the family company called “Gebrüder Dassler Schuhfabrik.” Adi was an introverted artist, and Rudi was responsible for public relations. During wartime, they managed to sign Jesse Owens, the athlete who dazzled at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, to wear their track spikes. During the war, the company, like many others, became a supplier to the Wehrmacht with military boots and hand grenades. Once the war ended, Adi was called upon to explain his Nazi connections, convinced that it was his brother who had betrayed him.
Otherwise, Nike was founded in 1964 by Bill Bowerman and Phil Knight in Oregon, but it did not adopt that name until 1972. Before that, it was known as “Blue Ribbon Sports,” an intermediary company for the Japanese brand Tiger until Phil Knight decided to break free and founded Nike in 1972.
In 1949, when Adidas was established, Adolf Dassler’s main focus was to establish a strong connection with the world of sports. His primary goal was to innovate and create high-quality products. He was also a visionary in using sports celebrities as brand ambassadors.
From the 1950s to the 1960s, while in Oregon they were still distributing Onitsuka Tigers across the country, Adolf turned Adidas into a leading brand in the world of sports and fashion. The sponsorship of prominent athletes and the distinctive design of the three stripes created a sensation among the population, contributing to its success.
In 1952, they signed a sponsorship deal with the famous runner Emil Zátopek, and with him, the brand began to gain international recognition on the Olympic stage, enhancing its prestige. Shortly thereafter, they signed a sponsorship agreement with the West German national team when they won the World Cup. Later, in 1968, one of the historical images associated with the brand occurred: Tommie Smith won the gold medal in the 200 meters with Adidas shoes. Smith and his fellow athlete John Carlos performed the famous protest gesture on the podium with raised fists wearing black gloves. This increased the visibility of Adidas and its association with social and political issues.
Nike’s Entry in the 1970s
Fed up with back-and-forth trips to Japan to negotiate with the owners of Asics, who were gradually reducing product shipments to the United States, Phil Knight decided to cut ties and apply all his know-how in the field of sneakers to found his own company: Nike.
At that time, Adidas was the dominant force in the global sports scene. There was no athlete, football player, or sporting event where Adidas products were not worn. In an era where advertising was in its infancy, the best way to sell your product was to have the trendsetting athlete wear your shoe models. In major track meetings, races, and sporting events, spectators associated success with the products worn by the winners. This significantly boosted product sales to a well-defined target audience.
Fight against Adidas, the great reference of the time.
Phil Knight was aware of this after traveling across the country selling the virtues of Onitsuka sneakers and realizing that Adidas was the brand to beat, with an established reputation. He focused on product innovation and sponsorship of emerging young athletes who could represent the brand’s rebellious and fresh spirit. This led both companies to employ aggressive marketing strategies to gain market share. The commercial war between Nike and Adidas had begun.
While Adidas had a strong presence in Europe, Nike aimed to conquer the United States through innovation. They invented “Air” technology, a cushioning made with air that caused a sensation in the sports world. In the 1970s, other brands began to emerge, leading to fierce rivalry in the industry.
The 1980s: A Turning Point for Nike
The 1980s were a time when the rivalry between Nike and Adidas was at its peak. Both companies competed to produce the best sneakers in terms of design and technology, and they launched two iconic models: Adidas Superstar and Nike Air Force 1.
It was also a time when both brands began diversifying their product lines to include sportswear, not just sneakers. However, there was undoubtedly fierce competition to sponsor young talents. One of these emerging stars would change the paradigm and the balance between both companies: the sponsorship of Michael Jordan by Nike.
This story focuses on a crucial moment in Michael Jordan’s career and how Nike managed to change the game in sports marketing. In the 1980s, Converse dominated the basketball market in the United States. However, when a standard contract was offered to Michael Jordan, he sought something more innovative and creative. Converse couldn’t provide him with an appealing option.
Jordan considered a deal with Adidas, a brand that had already dressed great athletes and Muhammad Ali, but its focus on Europe and sports like tennis and soccer didn’t fit his needs.
The Signing of Michael Jordan by Nike
The plot takes a turn when Nike enters the scene with a revolutionary offer: two cars, a million-dollar contract, and specially designed sneakers for him. This level of personalization was unprecedented in the sports shoe industry and convinced Jordan, despite his initial desire to sign with Adidas. His mother, Deloris, also played a crucial role in his decision, as she persuaded him to give Nike a chance, an up-and-coming American brand with a forward-thinking mindset.
Under the leadership of Phil Knight, a 21-year-old with exceptional potential, Nike and Michael Jordan formed a perfect partnership. Nike needed a high-profile star to achieve fame, and Jordan was destined to captivate NBA fans.
In a short period of time after signing the contract, Nike launched the iconic Air Jordan sneakers, designed specifically for basketball enthusiasts. These sneakers set a historic sales record and popularized red and black basketball shoes. They soon became coveted items for amateur players around the world.
The Rivalry Between Nike and Adidas: A Battle for Popular Culture and Lifestyle
The success of Air Jordan brought an unintended but successful side effect: the adoption of Nike products by the general public. Gradually, the company integrated itself into popular culture through inspiring advertising campaigns by Wieden+Kennedy, the brand’s longtime advertising agency, which still works for the company today, 50 years later. Nike increasingly connected with youth thanks to the popularity of the slogan “Just Do It.”
Meanwhile, Adidas achieved one of the most iconic moments in advertising history by collaborating with the hip-hop group Run-D.M.C. The song “My Adidas” and its association with the brand became a cultural phenomenon, helping popularize Adidas Superstar sneakers and strengthening the connection between Adidas and hip-hop music.
The German brand began promoting its sportswear and footwear as part of an active urban lifestyle. Ads depicted young people wearing Adidas products in urban settings, positioning the brand as a stylish choice for youth culture.
The 1990s: Nike Lands in Europe
In the 1990s, Nike continued to strengthen its core pillars, including collaboration with Michael Jordan. Nike released several editions of sneakers that became one of the most iconic and collectible footwear lines of all time. The advertising campaign “Be Like Mike” continued to boost Michael Jordan’s image as a global sports icon.
They also continued to emphasize their “Just Do It” slogan. The phrase appeared in numerous ads and was associated with the spirit of overcoming obstacles and achieving greatness, featuring athletes overcoming challenges and achieving great feats.
However, what marked the 1990s for Nike was its entry into Europe and, consequently, the globalization of the brand. They created a new division called “Nike Football” and immersed themselves in European sports culture. With experience in managing contracts with top stars, they gradually signed European talents of the time.
Nike did not hesitate to invest all its resources in creating a production of epic proportions, more akin to Hollywood than a conventional advertising campaign. Prior to the 1996 European Championship in England, Nike generated anticipation by releasing short teaser ads on all major European television channels. Expectations were high regarding what Nike had prepared for its entry into the European market.
A Historic Commercial: Nike’s “Good vs Evil”
The “Good vs. Evil” ad changed sports advertising forever and the rivalry between Nike and Adidas. It was a leap into the 21st century that surprised all competing brands. The ad featured famous European players facing the apocalypse in a soccer match at the Colosseum in Rome to decide the fate of humanity.
This ad left everyone impressed and generated a lot of interest. Special programs were broadcast on television to discuss the campaign in detail. Children went to school excited to talk about it with their friends and then played soccer feeling like those famous players.
Nike’s campaign was particularly exciting. The ad was narrated by Max Von Sydow and directed by Hollywood filmmaker Tarsem. It was technically shot in real locations, and all special effects were created manually, including the fire on the field, the appearance of the villains, and the movements of the giant, winged, and terrifying devil.
The Battle for Sponsorships
In the following year, there was an intense battle for player rights. The rivalry between Nike and Adidas attracted other brands like Umbro and Puma, who sought to secure contracts with athletes to use them as brand ambassadors and prevent the American company from dominating sports marketing. However, they arrived late, as Nike achieved a significant milestone: signing the Brazilian national team, featuring stars like Ronaldo, Roberto Carlos, Romario or Rivaldo, known for their ‘Jogo Bonito,’ a term coined thanks to a Nike advertising campaign.
Then came the 1998 World Cup in France, a golden opportunity for Nike to demonstrate its dominance in global soccer sports marketing. They created an ad that, unknowingly, laid the groundwork for viral marketing that would become popular a decade later with the expansion of the internet.
Another Historic Ad: Nike’s “Airport”
Nike’s ad, titled “Airport,” placed the stars of the Brazilian team in an airport terminal waiting for a flight. The wait became endless, and the players got bored until Ronaldo pulled a soccer ball out of his backpack to start playing. We saw Roberto Carlos, Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Denilson, and Romario having a great time at the airport, performing astonishing tricks that left people and security guards in awe, with a special appearance by Eric Cantona.
This Nike ad, “Airport,” succeeded in linking the magic and style of the “Jogo Bonito” of the legendary Brazilian team with the Nike brand. This innovative approach to advertising, marketing, soccer, and its stars catapulted Nike and solidified it as an industry leader. If you wanted to be someone important, you had to sign with Nike.
Adidas Caught Off Guard
The 1990s were a tough time for Adidas, as Nike gradually consolidated itself among the younger generations as a fresh and modern brand. Their link with Michael Jordan helped them dominate the North American market and also prepared an offensive to dominate the European territory and Adidas’ stronghold: soccer.
Nike’s strategy was devastating, and the brands, unable to replicate the success of the American multinational, opted to strengthen the areas they dominated. Adidas continued as the main sponsor of the FIFA World Cup and the Olympic Games and managed to sign excellent soccer players like David Beckham. They also invested in urban culture and innovation in their sneakers, but they saw that this strategy was becoming obsolete in the face of Nike’s unstoppable progress, so they decided to change their advertising strategy.
The 2000s: Adidas’s Resurgence with “Impossible Is Nothing”
In the early 2000s, the rivalry between Nike and Adidas reached another crucial point. The German brand found itself at a disadvantage compared to its main competitors. To reposition itself as an inspiring sports brand and compete with Nike’s iconic “Just Do It,” Adidas seized the opportunity presented by the 2006 World Cup in Germany to revitalize its brand image.
The goal was to attract an audience aged 12 to 24 who were passionate about sports. To achieve this, they needed to reaffirm their position as a sports brand that inspires and improve their competitiveness in the market. To accomplish this task, they chose to collaborate with the agency 180/TBWA. After researching the brand’s history, they decided to use a quote from one of Adidas’s greatest ambassadors: Muhammad Ali.
The Creation of the Slogan “Impossible Is Nothing”
In one of his speeches, Muhammad Ali stated: “Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they’ve been given than to explore the power they have to change it. Impossible is not a fact. It’s an opinion. Impossible is not a declaration. It’s a dare. Impossible is potential, is temporary, Impossible is nothing.” The last three words, “Impossible is nothing,” perfectly encapsulated the message Adidas wanted to convey as a well-known sports footwear and sportswear brand, reinforcing the idea that limits are just opinions and that potential is limitless.
The eslogan “Impossible is nothing” became the central theme of the campaign and the essence of the brand. In February 2004, Adidas launched the largest and most expensive global campaign at that time, with an investment of $50 million to attract its target audience. To achieve this, they used all available media, including television, print, outdoor advertising, points of sale, and the internet.
The campaign featured 22 athletes, all renowned sports figures such as Muhammad Ali, Haile Gebrselassie, David Beckham, and Tracy McGrady. They created a spectacular ad that combined historical footage with new footage to bring together legendary athletes and motivate the audience to overcome any obstacles that might impede their progress. In the advertisements, athletes challenged the impossible, took risks, and set new goals. A memorable example was the ad in which a young Muhammad Ali sparred with his daughter Laia.
Nike, Consolidating Its Brand Image
Nike focused on strengthening its brand presence in the fashion and sports industry. They continued to sign sponsorship deals with some of the world’s most prominent athletes, such as LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Tiger Woods, Ronaldinho, Serena Williams, or teams like FC Barcelona. These athletes became brand ambassadors and starred in ads that emphasized their excellence in sports under the “Just Do It” slogan.
In the 2010s, Digital Marketing and Social Media arrives
With the beginning of the 2010s, the rivalry between Nike and Adidas dominated digital marketing in all its aspects. Websites, online stores, or profiles on Twitter and Facebook. Digital services like Nike Training Club and Nike+ Run Club were introduced to provide personalized experiences to consumers.
On the other hand, Adidas intensified its efforts in sustainability and committed to reducing its environmental impact by using recycled materials in its products. This was reflected in campaigns and products that highlighted their commitment to environmental responsibility.
The German brand invested in opening franchise stores in major cities. These stores offered unique experiences for consumers, including product customization opportunities and events related to sports and lifestyle culture.
Of course, both companies continued with their strategies of sponsoring athletes and expanding their roster of brand ambassadors. Sponsorship of major events allowed them to license and export the brand image to areas such as video games, streaming, and influencers.
The rivalry between Nike and Adidas is currently in a position of dominance. Their strategies for the future revolve around digital marketing, sustainability, and social responsibility. Their relevance in the industry for many more years will depend on these strategies.