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Although Michael Jordan will be suiting up for Nike this fall, a new star is emerging in brand marketing: the product.

Observers of the No. 1 athletic footwear and apparel giant have noted that, with a few exceptions, Nike's eclectic ad voice is speaking more these days of product innovation than edgy, jockish attitude.

Nike executives said the shift attempts to achieve a greater balance than in past years.

"Our product story does get lost in our advertising sometimes," said Chris Zimmerman, Nike's director of U.S. advertising. "We recognize that our ads need to tell consumers we're about product innovation and not just athletes and exposure."


Mr. Zimmerman said the shift has an eye toward the future, as the company takes the swoosh into new areas.

"We need to prove to consumers that we're not just slapping a swoosh on stuff to make a buck."

He said the same will be true of Nike's November launch of a stand-alone Jordan brand named for basketball superstar Michael Jordan, representing a $300 million business. Air Jordans have long been swooshless, and that approach is being extended to an entire collection, consisting initially of a basketball shoe, cross-trainers and apparel (AA, Sept. 1). Air Jordans will be part of the new collection.

The ad push, anchored by a humorous TV spot, will show that the products come out of Mr. Jordan's direct involvement. Wieden & Kennedy, Portland, Ore., is the agency.

Observers, however, note the shift comes as Nike's record-setting growth is slowing, with consumers balking at Nike's $100-plus prices and instead rounding out swoosh-filled closets with other casual fashions.


Nike posted 41.5% sales gains for fiscal '97, ended May 31, but lower than expected gains in the fourth quarter signaled a change in the wind. Wall Street predicts Nike will grow 15.2% in '98. Experts said Nike remains formidable as ever, that its brand continues to be expertly managed, but will have to work harder to grow.

Nike recently told the investment community it will better emphasize its $70 to $100 segment in 1998. No. 3 Adidas America and, to a lesser degree, No. 2 Reebok International have scored points with quality products at lower prices.

"The shift toward product in advertising could be a response to competition," said Faye Landes, a financial analyst at Smith Barney. "Adidas and Reebok have done much better lately, and that success is product-driven."


"Adidas is giving Nike fits" in running, women's sports and soccer, said John Horan, publisher of Sporting Goods Intelligence. "Nike hasn't faced a challenge like this in 10 years."

Conventional wisdom is that if Adidas can beef up in basketball and cross-training, two cash-cow categories, it could easily contend with Reebok for No. 2 in the U.S. Adidas is reporting triple-digit increases in orders worldwide.


But beyond an effort to move product, some observers see Nike's ad shift as a move to soften an image made prickly by a critical mass of controversies, ranging from labor practices at Asian plants to last year's blood, sweat and guts Summer Olympics ad campaign.

Mr. Zimmerman says Nike is sensitive to how it is perceived. But he also said Nike isn't backing down completely from the edgy advertising for which it is famous.

He cited the summertime "Heart of Sports" campaign created by Wieden, and the recent skateboarding, snowboarding and mountain biking ads from Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, San Francisco.

Even with product-focused ads, Mr. Zimmerman argued for a more robust definition of what is deemed provocative. A back-to-school effort created by Wieden dared to fill TV time with static shots of shoes and billboards that directed consumers to the Internet. Of those ads Mr. Zimmerman said, "It was an interesting way of telling a product story. You'd never see our competitors go

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