Maybe the world doesn’t need another ad about the fifth camera at the back of your smartphone. Maybe offering 24 different versions of just one car model (BMW 3 series) only adds to choice fatigue, and post-purchase anxiety. Maybe the response to Nespresso’s famous “What Else” campaign series, featuring George Clooney, isn’t ‘nothing’, and maybe instead of focusing on the quality of coffee in their campaigns, Nespresso should focus on the quality of the lives of the coffee farmers that Nespresso is accused of neglecting. Maybe you can be a chocolate brand and launch ad campaigns that are not focused on happy life moments and celebrations, but sad domestic violence moments instead.
It was a turning point for brands to start getting comfortable with questioning the status quo – status quo in consumer ideologies and status quo in marketing practices.
Woke for decades
Nike has a history of launching empowerment campaigns. The brand addressed ageism in 1988 by featuring Walt Stack, an 80-year-old runner, supported people with disabilities a year later, then supported the gay community by featuring Ric Munoz, an HIV-positive gay athlete in 1995 to fight the stigma around AIDS. The brand then tackled gender issues, running campaigns like “If You Just Let Me Play” in 1995, “Voices” in 2012 and “Equality” in 2017, featuring black athletes like LeBron James and Serena Williams. Finally, Nike ran the most talked about campaign in 2018, “Dream Crazy” featuring now-civil rights activist Kaepernick, followed by “Dream Crazier”. Just recently, Nike featured Argentina’s first trans woman soccer player.
“Dream Crazy” is a two-minute short film featuring the stories of 16 athletes with inspirational, woke stories, narrated by Kaepernick. The theme is: “Don’t ask if your dreams are crazy. Ask if they’re crazy enough”. It shows how the power of sport can move the world forward. The campaign shocked and shook the corporate world. It was perhaps the first time a brand had gone against the conventional business wisdom and partnered with a controversial figure. Like the previous heroes of Nike’s progressive campaigns, Kaepernick has a story to tell; however, he is a polarising figure, given that his method of protest against social injustice (first sitting and then kneeling during the US national anthem) was politically charged. The president at the time verbally attacked Kaepernick for the move.
The value is in human values
Fast-forward to 2021; three years after the launch of ‘Dream Crazy”, the campaign has won the world’s first Most Effective Ad award. The lesson here for the next generation of advertisers and creative directors is simple. Instead of discussing the episodic storytelling, or nonclassical narrative, or stencil directing, or stylistic congruity, focus on people not your products; place the message in the context of something bigger – purposeful human value-oriented messages.
“We have seen Nike following its sportsmanship and showing humanistic care and beliefs for diverse communities, even when encountering resistance and difficulties,” said Global Best of the Best Effie awards co-chairperson, Helen Luan. “It is, indeed, a beautiful, powerful, and most importantly, effective case that is worthy of the Iridium Effie.”
Such campaigns aren’t easy to execute, and are not recommended for all brands to adopt and run. Only a handful of brands may even feel confident enough to try such high-tension messages and figures in their campaigns. Brands that don’t have any history of wokeness, pushing social justice or fighting discrimination can make the worst or least effective campaigns ever, and end up pulling them and issuing apologies. We have seen many brands get over-excited about their social responsibility overnight and go from selling sugary water to becoming peacemaker, as in Pepsi’s campaign featuring Kendall Jenner, which trivialised the Black Lives Matter movement, or from selling Frappuccino to discussing race inequality, as in Starbuck’s Race Together campaign. Both campaigns were pulled and apologies were issued.
While getting it right and turning it into a successful campaign is important, the priority should be given to not getting it wrong. The key to “Dream Crazy” being effective was not that it generated greater revenue or higher product-related engagement. It was effective because it affected the social debate and conversation about important issues within society and humanity.
The most important, but hidden, lesson to be learned from Nike’s Dream Crazy campaign was the fact that its success wasn’t just the outcome of a two-minute, carefully written, inspiring, and thought-provocative narrative. It was the outcome of collective, consistent, and continuous messaging aligned with the image the brand had created and positioned over years. Gillette copying Nike’s Dream Crazy messaging and launching its “The Best Men Can Be” wasn’t as effective, since it missed many elements both inside and outside of the two-minute content. It resulted in a leapfrog from fighting toxic masculinity to protecting fire fighters’ sensitive skin in a follow up campaign, demonstrating Gillette’s random attempt at addressing a high-tension social issue.