Why Nike's 'Write the Future' Is Rewriting the Past

Brand Aims to Tap Into Digital Culture With World Cup Spot -- But Does It Work?

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Ana Andjelic
Ana Andjelic
Everyone is talking about the new Nike World Cup spot, and with good reason: It's a beautifully told story that transcends media formats to deliver a truly emotional and inspirational experience. In 30 seconds, it appears that Nike finally cracked the code by combining compelling narrative with the power of digital distribution. And, Wieden & Kennedy showed us what it means for a brand to truly participate in culture.

Or, did it? Is this really still a way to build a strong digital brand? It's clear what Nike tried to do with its spot: to insert itself into the culture around the World Cup. And that's fine -- without this connection, as the popular argument goes, Coke is just a soft drink, Google is just a search engine, and Nike's nothing more than a pair of sneakers. People need symbolic power of brands in our lives, because it turns their connection with products into something with cultural meaning. Brands help them navigate the world, understand their role within it, and broadcast the message about who they are. In this believable, albeit slightly needy scenario, all that brands have to do to reclaim their relevance is to sneak into popular conversations and become something that people use to tell their story better.

The problem is, we are today dealing with a completely different sort of culture in digital. Yes, the World Cup is a big and awesome event, but how it's going to play out in the lives of soccer fans next month is part of the emerging digital culture, and not some symbolic inspirational culture that Nike -- and other brands -- are so desperate to penetrate.

Digital culture is based on tools, incentive systems and ideas that have absolutely nothing to do with brands or cultural symbols. How people get inspired and motivated, how they identify with something, and build their identity online has refreshingly little to do with brand stories told through 30-second spots.

This year's Cannes Young Lions 48 Hours Ad Contest bubbled up Chatroulette for a Better World, aimed to raise awareness of the clean water problem. Why does it matter? What it offered is a simple execution, and more importantly, plenty of inspiration without representation. Go to Huffington Post to see what's new, you may as well earn a badge identifying you as a "Networker," "Moderator," or "Superuser." Go to 7-Eleven and buy something, and you can unlock some FarmVille animal, courtesy of Zynga. Stumble upon the new Mitchum deodorant site, and you may end up there for a while watching videos of the "Hardest Working ______ in America." Or, start following the World Cup in a few weeks, and you will probably be equally interested in what all other soccer fans are saying about it on Twitter as in the soccer itself.

All of this suggests a new sort of networked, reciprocal, gift-based, game-like digital culture today -- and digital culture is quickly becoming popular culture. Apply badges, likes, cues, contests, and make-believe social settings to the World Cup, and all of the sudden you have a completely different beast you are used to dealing with. Why didn't Nike do something with it? Its World Cup campaign may have played out completely differently if it used all these things to inspire fans to connect with each other, with the global soccer culture, and with the Nike brand, for that matter.

"Write the Future" tells a story about how the World Cup is the stage where players can achieve immortality. It's meant to inspire soccer fans but has also inspired people in the industry that things, after all, may work out for the better. The internet, sadly, will never offer this sort of culture they are hoping for to make their brands relevant there. Only a lot of missed opportunities.

Why? Because it is this other sort of culture, digital, that gives people ability to play with who they are and to explore who they want to be. It doesn't give people stories consume or to talk about, it allows actively making them. Or, to stay true to the theme, it lets people write the future.

Ana Andjelic is a freelance strategist and did her Ph.D. dissertation on digital branding. You can follow her thoughts at I [love] marketing, where this piece was originally posted.

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