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Meet the Man Behind Nike's Neon-Shoe Ambush

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You probably don't know Martin Lotti. But if you watched the Olympics, you are definitely familiar with his handiwork.

He's the man behind those shoes -- the beautifully crafted, incandescent kicks that whizzed by on the feet of 400 Olympic athletes, including USA's Ashton Eaton and Trey Hardee, Great Britain's Mo Farah and France's Renaud Lavillenie, enabling Nike to capture the Olympic gold in ambush marketing.

Mr. Lotti, 37, is Nike's global creative director for the Olympics -- an interesting title, since Nike wasn't an official London 2012 sponsor. An industrial designer by education, he has been at Nike for 15 years, adding the "Olympic" aspect to his title just two years ago, while the brand's preparations for the London games were already underway. His role is to focus on the Nike products that 3,000 Olympic athletes wear on and off the field, from design to deployment.

Painting Nike's Flyknit shoe Volt, as that vivid neon-green-meets-highlighter-yellow color is called, was Mr. Lotti's way to create a kind of "Team Nike." Before London 2012, the brand matched the color of the shoe to the color of the individual athlete's uniforms. It looked pretty, but it blended in. This year, hundreds of athletes across different national federations wore the same color, what Mr. Lotti called "the easiest way" to make a splash.

Martin Lotti
Martin Lotti

The result was a wave of attention that could well end up in marketing textbooks for its simplicity and effectiveness. "Nike's move was really clever. They used marketing assets that belonged to them alone, and those assets gave them a pretty unique opportunity to take advantage of the Olympic rules," said Kent Grayson, professor of marketing at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. "The best marketing usually plays with the rules without quite going too far -- striking the right balance between the two is really hard and often risky but Nike got it perfectly this time."

So how did Nike achieve that? It started well before the Olympics, when focus groups of amateur, college and professional athletes were shown different colors of the shoe. "Across the board, everybody loved [the Volt]," said Mr. Lotti.

There's a scientific reason for why. "It's the most-visible color to the human eye," said Mr. Lotti. Even so, Nike left nothing to chance, testing the color against the myriad environments that the shoes would appear in during the games: the red of the track, the blue and white of the fencing stage, and the black and blue of the boxing ring.

'Our Tiffany Blue'
"The Volt is our signature color for Nike," he said. "It's our Tiffany Blue. Of course, it's no accident that we picked that color. The whole point of this was to create impact." The result was one of most iconic images of the 2012 Olympics.

Also different this year was that every product seen during the games was simultaneously available in stores, so it made sense to focus on the Flyknits, Nike's knit-constructed marathon shoe. "It's a sports moment for everyone," said Mr. Lotti, echoing, perhaps unconsciously, the focus on everyday athletes that fueled Nike's ambush marketing campaign: "Find Your Greatness."

Mr. Lotti believes good Nike products have four elements: performance, emotion (a Team USA insignia over the heart, for example), environment (in keeping with the spirit of this being the first "green" games, the Flyknit is Nike's most sustainable shoe ever) and aesthetics.

"When I worked with [tennis player] Maria Sharapova, she told me that when she looks better, she plays better," said Mr. Lotti. "That's where the aesthetics comes in."

Start with athletes
Glorious color seems to be where Mr. Lotti gets his kicks. He color-blocked the forearms and legs of the TurboSpeed tracksuit that Nike athletes wore, because the arms and legs move at a faster pace than the rest of the body.

Based on Nike wind-tunnel data, the suit, which is dimpled (the inspiration was a golf ball) is 0.023 seconds faster over 100 meters than the brand's previous track uniform -- but more interestingly, the athletes tell Mr. Lotti that they also "feel faster," he said.

"People think we use the athletes as a marketing vehicle, but we don't. We start with the athletes in mind," said Mr. Lotti. "They are instrumental from the front end, from the way it fits and feels to color."

During the Games, Mr. Lotti was on the ground, working from about 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. or later most nights, speaking to Nike-sporting Olympians, convening impromptu focus groups in the Athletes' Village and getting feedback on what works and what doesn't.

"The endeavor of the Olympics starts as soon as the last game ends," he said. "At the end of Beijing we started discussions about what we were going to do for London, and now we're knee-deep in Sochi and starting to think about Rio, as well."

Incidentally, IOC sponsor Adidas has not renewed its deal for 2016, leading some to speculate whether Nike will step in, leaving behind its role as strategic ambush marketer.

Mr. Lotti was mum on the point. But would it be easier if Nike were an official sponsor?

"It would definitely make life easier, but this makes it more interesting," he said. "I love challenges. I live by them."

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