Column by Jonah Bloom

Nike Dribbles Across the Commerce-Content Line

Sportswear Marketer's Book Hypes Nike Basketball Products

By Published on .

Displayed on a table in Urban Outfitters, adjacent to those heavyweight tomes How to Spot a Bastard by his Star Sign and The Worst Case Scenario Survival Guide, I came across the book Sole Provider.

Sole Provider is, as it states on the beautifully laminated cover, the story of 30 years of Nike basketball; 252 coffee-table pages of pictures of Nike basketball gear, Nike logos, Nike ads and almost all of the great players of the last three decades decked out in, err, Nike. This Nike-fest is woven together by a beat-poet style commentary by journalist and author Robert "Scoop" Jackson, and, in his words, is about the "true impact Nike has had not just on basketball but on culture."

Inspiringly effective
The book originated out of

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Nike's content partnership department, a relatively recent addition to the Nike marketing machine that is responsible for developing swoosh-branded media extensions. It is a simple but inspiringly effective marriage of content and commerce, one huge brand-building ad with content sufficiently compelling that the consumer is willing to pay for it -- handsomely, given the book's $34.95 price tag.

Sole Provider has generated invaluable underground PR, receiving rave reviews from sneaker and basketball fans on the Web. It was highly recommended by the Los Angeles Times and has charted in several top 10 hardback lists, suggesting it is currently adorning the bookshelves and coffee tables of a good number of American homes. (Proceeds from the book's sale were given to charity, by the way.)

Glossy hardback books based around a company or brand are certainly nothing new and there are several on the shelves at the moment, such as Guess's expansive and expensively produced A Second Decade of Guess Images. But the success of Sole Provider, at a time when so many marketers are considering how to insinuate their brands into content vehicles, is particularly interesting.

The brand is the star
First, it is a timely reminder you don't need a top Canadian chanteuse and an enormous multimillion-dollar budget to live in the realm of branded content. Recent attention has focused on the doyens of Hollywood and the creative kings of Madison Avenue, and their dance around and toward each other. Smart marketers will also look to their agencies (especially to their media strategists and PR shops) to dream up clever marriages of content and commerce that do not necessarily require megabucks or a big-name star.

Such marriages will not necessarily manifest themselves on TV or the big screen. If personal video recorders were the only threat to traditional advertising, it would make sense that marketers look only at TV-based content-commerce solutions. But the desire to find new ways to reach the consumer should be motivated as much by growing consumer cynicism toward, and immunity to, traditional advertising as it is by changing technologies. And if those are the drivers, we need fresh thinking in every medium -- Internet, radio, outdoor and print (in all its guises), as much as in TV and film.

Honest and blatant commercialism
The success of Sole Provider is also noteworthy because it is such an unsubtle piece of marketing. There are, of course, times when the branding of content becomes so overt as to be a turn-off to consumers. But it is also worth considering, particularly when targeting teens and young adults, that these are shrewd consumers who almost always know when they are being marketed to. The honest and blatant commercialism of Sole Provider, which sports two enormous Nike basketball boots on the cover, certainly didn't hold it back. Perhaps it is even part of its appeal.

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