BUNHILL: Nike gets a head start on its rivals

Marketing intrudes into every corner of our lives nowadays - but I'd never quite grasped the enormity of its power until a few weeks ago on an excursion with Bunhill the Younger to the park. There I saw a boy, eight years old at most, who'd had his head shaved at the back to leave an island of hair in the shape of the Nike logo. And just when I thought it was safe to go back in the paddling pool ...

The hard sell, then, has become the hair sell and you can just imagine how the conversation went with the barber:

"I want a Nike please, mate."

"Are you sure sir wouldn't prefer a Teletubbie style?"

"Just do it."

Tonsorial troubles aside, what this episode illustrates is how some high- profile companies are shifting customers from the concepts of brand loyalty and brand affinity to an almost emotional allegiance, like that enjoyed by football teams and rock bands such as Oasis. (And would people queue through the night if Nike brought out a new sports shoe? You bet your air-cushioned soles they would).

The companies haven't achieved this, though, by pushing products but by selling an attitude: in signing up "bad boys" such as Ian Wright and Eric Cantona, and getting its logo stuck on everything from Shane Warne's ears to Monica Seles' knickers, Nike appeals to people who want to announce that they'll do their own thing no matter what the world thinks.

Indeed, so potent has the image become that it is sometimes hard to tell whether the star is endorsing the product or the product is endorsing the star. By associating with Nike early in his career, for example, Tiger Woods became a household name before he was a household name.

The main market for the likes of Nike, of course, is youngsters to whom money (somebody else's money) is no object; as we get older so brand consciousness tends to be balanced against budgets. Staples such as Heinz baked beans and Kellogg's corn flakes retain their appeal, but I've yet to see anyone whose shaved head bears the slogan, "I'd forgotten how good it was" - though I'd love to be proved wrong on this.

Back in the big, brash world, meanwhile, the irony of Nike's success is that people should express their individuality by making a corporation very rich. Punk band the Clash coined a phrase for this kind of thing in the late 1970s: turning rebellion into money.

Conkering heroes

IF YOU still doubt the close relationship between business and sport, consider this: the World Conker Championships take place in Northamptonshire on Sunday 12 October, they're sponsored for the fifth year running by Pearl Assurance, thousands will attend, and last year pounds 15,000 was raised for charity. Just to raise the profile of horse-chestnut combat another notch, the organisers of the event are lobbying Tony Blair to make the game an accredited part of the Academy of Sport and so strengthen their campaign to be included in the 2000 Olympics.

So are these proponents of conkers bonkers? Well not really, because the game is a rich source of national pride; it would be since 31 of the last 32 champions have been British and last year's winner was a certain John Bull. It is also fair to say that the sport has evolved because the tournament has a knock-out format in which "the person with his conker intact at the end of the competition shall be declared the winner".

That may not sound like evolution but back in my school days the rules of engagement were much more rough and ready. For instance, if you had won two fights and you took on and beat an opponent who claimed to have won 10 fights, victory was less important than the fact that your horse- chestnut was now a "12-er" - his 10 triumphs added to your two.

I have to confess that most of my school-day colleagues were pretty hopeless at mathematics, but in the field of conkers we achieved a numerical expertise at which Pythagoras or Pascal would have blushed. Our genius was in exponential sequences because it would often only take three fights - against opponents who claimed their conker was a "20-er", a "101-er" or a "500-er" - before you were the proud owner of a "750-er". And so it would go on: if you were then beaten, your opponent might well have passed the 1,000 mark, and if he went on to overcome a "5,333-er" ... well, we've got calculators these days.

Fortunately, the World Conker Championships are much more sophisticated and boast their share of "characters". Among these are Charlie Bray, a gamekeeper (turned conker player) in his mid-70s, and Roger Grundon, who apparently turns up for games dressed as a "conker rastafarian" - festonned with horse-chestnuts from head to toe.

So with idiosyncratic contestants, bare-knuckle fighting and a multi- national field of the world's best conker players - all the ingredients are in place for some high-profile sponsorship. Go on Nike, just do it.

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