Naming Nike Digital Marketer of the Year almost welcomes the charge of unoriginality.
Sure, it's consistently outpaced its competition on Madison Avenue for more than 20 years, and the swoosh is recognized the world over as a symbol for spirited competition.
But don't hold that against the Beaverton, Ore.-based shoe and apparel giant. Its pioneering work is redefining interactive marketing, taking advantage of the web as a medium for commerce, brand extension, relationship building and conversation starting.
'Showing the way forward'
"The industry purposely doesn't award Nike things because they've won so many awards," says Robert Greenberg, founder-CEO of R/GA, which has worked closely with Nike since 2001. "But Nike is showing the way forward. ... Because of the way that they work, they helped us restructure the way we turn out creative by breaking down discrete departments and opening up the process."
The world's largest sport-shoe maker, Nike controls about 20% of the U.S. market. At a time when the Adidas-Reebok merger was supposed to close the gap on Nike, Nike gained 2 market-share points in the U.S.
"We create demand for our brand by being flexible about how we tell the story," says Trevor Edwards, VP-president, global brand and category management. "We do not rigidly stay with one approach."
Nike has done a masterful job of maintaining a consistent brand image across various channels, making sure what consumers experience in stores carries over seamlessly to the web.
Revamped e-commerce site
Go to Nike.com and you'll find a blazing-fast video tutorial in a visual language anyone can understand. Choose "Running" and you're not only presented with shorts and sneakers, but running sunglasses and Apple's iPod Nano. By exclusively using Adobe's Flash platform, Nike also recently revamped its e-commerce site, NikeStore.com, to make it faster and easier to navigate.
"We have an integrated marketing model that involves all elements of the marketing mix from digital to sports marketing, from event marketing to advertising to entertainment all sitting at the table driving ideas," Mr. Edwards says.
Nike's most successful campaigns transcend existing media classifications. For example, the company worked with its agency R/GA on the Nike iD build-your-own-shoe media placement in Times Square.
"We do not start with the medium," Mr. Edwards says. "We always start with the consumer and then look for the best ways to connect with them."
But in an environment designed to top itself, Nike built on the relationship between music and its use in workout routines. Nike linked up with the equally hip Apple and the iPod, immensely popular with runners, walkers and bicyclists.
Serving as a virtual training coach, the Nike+iPod Sport Kit lets athletes of any stripe use Nike Air Zoom Plus sneakers and the iPod Nano to track workout data, which can then be compiled on a website for later analysis. Further tying into consumers' digital lives, Apple's iTunes hosts a Nike Sport Music store full of recommendations by professional trainers and professional athletes such as Steve Nash and Lance Armstrong.
A yearlong project
"We approached Apple with the idea over a year ago," Mr. Edwards says. "With well over 1 million miles -- equivalent to circling the world more than 40 times -- logged by Nike Plus runners in just 10 weeks, it's fair to say that Nike and Apple have changed running forever."
And all this innovation has taken place amid a broad reorganization aimed at fortifying the company's brand. This summer, Gary DeStefano was named president of global operations from president of U.S. operations. Mr. Edwards was promoted from VP-global brand management. And at the beginning of the year Mark Parker replaced William Perez as chief executive, because Mr. Perez reportedly didn't see eye to eye with Nike founder and Chairman Philip Knight.
Following the changes, Mr. Knight called for more involvement in brand building online and overseas. Senior executives, from Nike's CEO to Apple CEO Steve Jobs and Mr. Edwards, are "involved with what's going on with the site," says R/GA's CEO Robert Greenberg. "That really sets them apart. It's amazing how a lot of companies have managed [interactive work] with very junior people."
Mr. Edwards and his team are adjusting to the changing media landscape. "How we end up on YouTube, a place where people express themselves, have some fun and share their creativity, is an example of that," he says.
For this year's World Cup, Nike created "Joga Bonito," which began as a marketing campaign to reach football crazy fans. But Mr. Edwards says Joga.com turned into the world's largest online soccer community with Nikefootball/jogaTV videos viewed globally more than 110 million times during the World Cup campaign.
Paying a price
The company is paying a price, however.
Nike just reported fiscal first-quarter profits down by 13%, due in part to increased marketing spending around various initiatives. Still, the fiscal year ended May 31 saw Nike hit a record $15 billion in sales. Longtime and new Nike brands -- Air Jordan and Converse Chuck Taylor All Star shoes -- helped boost revenue by 9%.
Nike is now racing to meet the constantly changing demands of the internet-empowered consumer. On a conference call with analysts at the end of September, Mr. Parker said the company was trying to reduce development cycles for products from 18 months to 12 months to get products into stores faster.
Even for Nike, that's pretty fast.