Just do it: Marketer recovering after stumbling at starting block

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When it comes to cool marketing, no one needs to tell Nike how to find the cutting edge. Yet when it concerns the Net, Nike -- at least until recently -- was as flat as a pair of 1982 running shoes.

"On the one hand, we wanted to be deliberate in how we saw our strategy. On the other hand, this is a medium and business where you need to be flexible," says Ian Yolles, director of marketing for Nike.com. "We then said if we are going to step forward, we need to bring the level of innovation and creativity which is consistent with the brand."

Nike's Internet activities started as a slow jog. In June 1996, for just 56 days, Nike had a Web site to support its Atlanta Summer Olympics effort.

"We actually pulled the plug," says Keith Peters, director of content development for Nike.com. "The irony is that we put up an award-winning `under construction' banner for the next three or four months."

PERSONALIZATION THEME

During the next two years, Nike's online presence existed as a platform extending its brand communications with some product and investor relations information.

Nike last year opened its online store and launched something even more important -- the Nike iD initiative. Nike iD gives consumers the ultimate online capability -- personalization.

Though Nike officials say consumer activity is minimal right now, consumers can customize the colors of a running or a cross-training shoe. In the next few months, Nike will allow customers to personalize the performance technology of its shoes for a new model, the Rival, a shoe that can alternate between a track shoe and a road shoe.

It may not matter how many custom shoes Nike sells. Perhaps the more important point is all this gives Nike a positive image with online consumers regardless of where they buy their sneakers.

Playing its customization theme further, Nike has even given consumers the ability to personalize their own Nike marketing campaigns. Wieden & Kennedy, Portland, Ore., created its "Whatever.Nike.com" spots that launched early this year. They feature three Nike athletes: runner Marion Jones, baseball player Mark McGwire and snowboarder Rob Kingwill. The action-adventure commercials show the celebrities in cliff-hanger endings.

At the end of each commercial, a frame comes up saying, "Continued at whatever.nike.com," a site Wieden built with Web developer one9ine, New York.

At the site, consumers can vote on six possible endings. "It enhances the customer experience in driving traffic to the site," says Michele Slack, Internet analyst for Jupiter Communications.

WORK IN PROGRESS

The "Whatever" online and

offline ads started separately, but ended up as one Internet marketing strategy.

"We were engaged in two very different conversations," says Mr. Yolles. "First, the question is how do you connect the world of mass communications to the world of Internet? We were also working on relaunching our cross-training footwear product, the essence of which is about versatility. As we created this campaign, we needed to communicate this single idea about versatility."

As part of its online strategy, Nike also struck an investment and retail distribution deal with sports-product e-tail site Fogdog Sports (fogdog.com) last year.

While Nike's Internet activities have come a long way, it's still a work in progress, say observers.

Ms. Slack says there are too many multiple downloads for a certain area, which slows navigating the site. "In theory, they have really good ideas," she says, "but there is some room for improvement."

Still, Nike executives say they believe -- even with some shortcomings, such as the planned slow start at Nike iD -- the marketer is far ahead of its competitors.

Says Mr. Yolles: "We are pretty confident some of these early precedents are going to lead to more innovation."

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