At a market value of $68 billion (Yahoo), Nike Inc is the largest maker of athletic shoes and apparel both in the United States and in the world. As a brand, Nike’s history began in the early 1970s with the name change from Blue Ribbon Sports and the adoption of the iconic swoosh / wing logo. By the end of the decade, the company controlled 50% of the U.S. athletic footwear market. Now, Nike competes with other major athletic and general apparel brands for larger segments of the rapidly growing women’s athletic apparel market. Last year in 2012, Nike made $4 billion in sales from women’s products. Nike expects to increase that number to $7 billion by 2017. (BizJournal) Altogether, women’s products represent almost 25% of Nike’s business. And with the men’s market already highly saturated, that proportion will only be increasing.

In examining Nike, I have decided to focus on Nike Women as a sub-brand of Nike’s larger male-centric brand. As all branding serves a strategic purpose, I have identified the aim of the Nike Women brand as the creation, attraction, and retention of female consumers for the purpose of selling Nike products and increasing the value of Nike Inc shareholders. To this end, I argue that the Nike Women brand constructs itself as a feminist lifestyle of self-empowerment through fitness, which consumers buy into and adopt as their own.

To test this argument, I will be analyzing the tactics of the Nike Women brand, its advertising, its community engineering, and the organic, creative, and productive responses of women who consume Nike products and Nike’s brand message.

ADVERTISING

In her book Authentic, Sarah Banet-Weiser explains brands as “a story told to the consumer”. These brand stories are supposed to inform or affect the “way we understand who we are, how we organize ourselves in the world, what stories we tell ourselves about ourselves” (Banet-Weiser 4-5). In this capacity, branding tactics are supposed to create an effect in the consumer: some change in perspective, opinion, thought. Banet-Weiser also explains that branding “entails the making and selling of immaterial things —feelings and affects, personalities and values—rather than actual goods”. So for instance, a women’s skin cream advertisement extolling the benefits of having good-looking skin likely affects a viewer’s understanding of what women are expected to consume, may elicit a feeling of desire or want, form values about what makes an attractive woman, and the social acceptability of clear skin.

Simultaneously, branding tactics are supposed to create an understanding in the consumer about the brand itself. Adam Arvidsson explains this in his essay “Brands: A Critical Perspective” as being part of the brand manager’s role in establishing the meaning of the brand. While he identifies one main aspect of brand management as the “selective appropriation” of consumers’ ideas and interactions with the brand product (which he calls innovation), the other main aspect is to ensure that “consumers’ use of branded goods serve to reproduce the forms of life that the brand embodies” (Arvidsson 244). This is the conservation side of brand management, which defines on the part of the brand the “contours of what the brand can mean” (245). To continue with the women’s skin cream example, the content of the advertisement will play heavily in pre-structuring consumers’ understanding of the skin cream brand. Whether the advert subject is singular or with a man, what the age of the subject is (if in her teens or her forties), and the adjectives used to describe the product (“luxurious”, “natural”, “easy to use”) all help establish boundaries of meaning for the brand.

To all of these ends, telling stories, imparting values, and establishing a brand’s meaning, advertising plays a key part in Nike’s branding. It is through advertising that the majority of people are first exposed to a brand, and as narratives they can form lasting impressions on what meanings are attached to a brand. The central story of the Nike Women brand is that of female empowerment through fitness and individual accomplishment, and it is a story that fits well into a strategy of commodity feminism. Identified as a form of commodity activism by Banet-Weiser, she describes it as the attachment of feminist values such as empowerment and gender equality to products as a selling point (Banet-Weiser 19).

MAKE YOURSELF

This is certainly the case in the “Make Yourself” advertisement campaign for Nike Women that ran in 2010. The campaign was centered on a minute-long commercial featuring three female  athletes (a track runner, skier, and dancer) talking about some of their views and mantras on exercise and fitness. The commercial also featured footage of the athletes exercising, and during that footage sentences were superimposed on top beginning with the text “I’m making myself…” in a solid typeface and ending with a word such as “proud”, “shine”, and “hot” in a handwritten typeface.

(“Make Yourself” commercial)

The print and visual advertisements of that campaign were in a similar style, featuring a singular woman, usually exercising or in exercise apparel, superimposed with text in the same vein as the video commercial. A small difference worth noting however is that in the commercial the text always began with the declaration “I’m making myself”; in the print advertisements, the superimposed text will sometimes begin with the command “make yourself”.

(poster from “Make Yourself” feat. Sofia Boutella, source)

The story-telling content of this advertisement campaign presents the narrative of successful women athletes succinctly imparting their own values upon the viewer. In examining the language of their messages, we see how this campaign defines the Nike brand as one of self-empowerment, much like the defining of contours regarding the brand’s meaning as explained by Arvidsson. “Rain or shine, I push myself to the limit everyday”, says a smiling Julia Mancuso. Allyson Felix also says praisingly that there is “no better feeling than knowing that you gave a hundred percent”. A more serious Sofia Boutella says that she doesn’t believe in shortcuts because “you don’t earn anything. You have to earn it.” Combined with the graphic text that these athletes are making themselves “proud”, “shine”, and “hot”, the commercial is connecting these values of personal improvement and hard work with accomplishment, even sexual attractiveness / power.

The commercial also draws attention to the viewer’s perspective of herself by utilizing the word “you” in both the athletes’ statements and the concluding text saying “what are you doing to make yourself?” In this way, the advertisement forces the viewer to relate the values being presented by the commercial of personal improvement back to herself. This language also isolates the viewer as a singular person, and in omitting any plurality, fits well into Banet-Weiser’s concept of commodity activism. Like other activist messages, this commercial promotes empowerment (in particular through self-improvement). What separates commodity activism as different from other forms of activism, however, is that “the empowerment aimed for is most often personal and individual, not one that emerges from collective struggle or civic participation” (16). This is certainly the case in the “Make Yourself” campaign, and is even more pronounced  when considering that commodity activism positions the individual as “a flexible commodity that can be packaged, made, and remade…that gains value through self-empowerment” (17). Indeed, the message that you become “hot” by exercising and “earning it” implies the individual is indeed flexible, can be remade, and gains value through self-empowerment, fitting well into the structure of commodity activism.

VOICES

Another commercial made recently by Nike in 2012 for Nike Women was called “Voices”. In it there were featured a number of young girls and renowned women athletes speaking about their athletic dreams and the barriers that stood in their way, often in the form of male prejudice and discrimination. The video presented the girls and athletes speaking the same lines, and would show the young girls speaking while playing back the audio of the older athletes’ voices.

(“Voices” commercial)

The video is very much focused on the struggles women athletes had to (and in the presentation of young girls, continue to) overcome in order to be accepted in the arena of sports and athletics. From the very beginning, it poses the women athletes in opposition to the social dominance of men. “ Girls just didn’t run in public.“Nobody on my all boys team would pass to me.” “Dad told me I couldn’t be a boxer; he told me I was too small.” The commercial simultaneously reflects back on and draws familiar tropes and scenarios from a culturally shared history of sexism in the U.S. It’s an example of inter-textual links being used as Arvidsson described to again define the meaning of the brand. In this case, the commercial presents itself as embodying the value of gender equality, which is also a cultural material that the commercial is simultaneously appropriating. In setting a context of gender inequality and discrimination, Nike Women produces a platform “that enable[s] the production of particular immaterial use-values: an experience, a shared emotion, a sense of community” (Arvidsson 245).

Nike Women positions itself as a supporter of these women athletes, and in doing so appropriates feminist ideals of gender equality, transgressing traditional gender boundaries, and the full and equal participation of women as actors in society. The main context for Nike products as well, namely sports and athletics, is highlighted as a site of feminist struggle.

Users on the social network Reddit’s r/feminism sub forum saw this advertisement as well, and it was received with largely positive feedback. It’s evident that Nike’s intent of associating their brand with female empowerment was working; one user said “I love Nike”, and another wrote “I love Nike’s attitude toward women”. Of course, there were also some dissenters in this community. One comment which received a substantial amount of both support and opposition (in the form of votes) warned “don’t let this crap fool you”, showing that not all consumers are swayed into accepting Nike’s portrayal as a company empowering women.

EMPATHY

One of the earliest ads Nike produced aimed specifically for women was its 8-page print advertisement “Empathy.” Launched in the spring of 1991, the advertisement spanned the life of a woman from childhood to middle age. The very first page begins in bold “You were born a daughter”, and for the first several pages continues to be a series of statements all beginning with “you”, putting the the woman viewer in relation to a person, feeling, or event. Usually a statement would be followed by a similar statement with a different relationship:  “You were picked last for the team. You were the best one on the team. You refused to be on the team.” “You wouldn’t wear a bra. You couldn’t wait to wear a bra. You couldn’t fit into a bra.” Entire spectrums of adolescent and young adult emotions are passed through, until it cycles to the expected romance: “You really fell in love. You became a steady girlfriend. You became a significant other.” And then on the second to last page, with a single line of copy, came the truly empowering message: “You became significant to yourself.”

(selections from “Empathy”, source)

Interspersed between the copy on each page were images of shoes (the products) and photographs of women in action: jogging, rowing, jumping, dancing. The advertisement presented the often subordinated experience of women and girls in society and offered empowerment through fitness and rejection of traditional messages. It was a bold advertisement for a company that had little to no experience with women consumers, and hadn’t been supported by extensive market research. This first advertisement incorporating values of feminism into Nike’s brand message to women set a precedent reflected in all their subsequent women-directed ads.

In learning more about this particular campaign online, I encountered multiple blogs written by women discussing the significant impact of this advertisement on their lives. One blogger (Keka) described it as “the glossy Nike fold out magazine ad that completely changed my life.” In her blog post, she relates the stories of other women who had called Nike and the ad agency offering their support for the ad, and women who continue to “dig through boxes in their attics to find it and hand it on to their pre-pubescent daughters with tears of hope in their eyes.” Something which she herself did. A different blogger (HeyRay) also testifies to having torn out the advertisement when she first saw it and holding onto it as a keepsake.

This shared experience in the form of an advertisement in itself created a brand community of women around Nike, all experiencing shared emotions – of inclusion, of understanding, of empowerment, and of relief. As HeyRay put it, “it successfully appealed to the deep motivational pit in the souls of women across America, from teenager to middle age.”

COMMUNITY

The “Empathy” ad campaign demonstrates the ability of the brand (and indeed, the self-preserving obligation of the brand) to create a brand community of consumers. Muniz and O’Guinn define brand community in their article “Brand Community” as “a specialized, non-geographically bound community, based on a structured set of social relationships among admirers of the brand” (Muniz, O’Guinn 412). The network of bloggers admiring and reminiscing on the “Empathy” advertisement is indicative of just such a community. They are common admirers of Nike, and are not bound to a particular geography (just wherever the ad happens to go), exemplifying the “imagined” aspect of the brand community. By sharing their brand stories, the bloggers are performing an important process in creating brand community by reinforcing “consciousness of kind between brand members” that “contributes to imagined communities” (Muniz, O’Guinn 423).

One activity that women Nike consumers bond around is the Nike Women’s Half Marathon, which has been held in Washington DC and San Francisco. There were multiple meet-up groups set up for organizing runners on MeetUp.com, which are all natural sites for community building. These Nike runners also formed their communities on Reddit and Facebook, where threads and groups were formed respectively for the purpose of organizing fellow runners. The Facebook page for the Nike Women’s Marathon has over 130 thousand “Likes”.

On the photo-sharing social network Instagram, Nike Women not only has a significant official presence on its own, but here is where contemporary members of the modern Nike Women community seem to convene. Many women will take photos of themselves exercising or relaxing in Nike fitness apparel, and tag themselves as #nikewomen. Generally these women take photos as part of what they call “fitspiration”, the creation, sharing, and admiring of images that inspire fitness – hence the portmanteau between fitness and inspiration. Sometimes this will be abbreviated as “fitspo”. Some of them can be seen here:

nikewomen Instagram

ameliachai Instagram

iamjaymali Instagram

ash1y24 Instagram

morgonkaffe Instagram

caitmariebee Instagram

 

CONCLUSION

The Nike brand represents a lifestyle of fitness and sport, and Nike has effectively extended this brand to incorporate women consumers. It began as an all-male brand in the 70s that has since grown and sustained what I view to be a mostly healthy relationship with women, based primarily on the notion of individual female empowerment. The brand has been adopted by women that have fused Nike into their own expressions of “fitspiration”, a consumer community that Nike was built for and actively seeks to reproduce. In so far as these are true, I believe that the Nike Women brand constructs itself as a feminist lifestyle of self-empowerment through fitness, which consumers buy into and adopt as their own.

Arvidsson, Adam. “Brands: A Critical Perspective.” Journal of Consumer Culture 5 (2005): 244-48.

Banet-Weiser, Sarah. Authentic TM: Politics and Ambivalence in a Brand Culture. New York: New York UP, 2012. 

Muniz, Jr., Albert M., and Thomas C. O’Guinn. “Brand Community.” Journal of Consumer Research 27.4 (2001): 412-32. Print.

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