The branding of a hot property

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The Independent Online
IN the early Eighties, when Jimmy Connors was at the peak of his powers, he approached Nike and tried to put together a deal worth $1,500 to wear their tennis shoes. They turned him down, but he decided to use the shoes anyway. Nike's sales immedi ately rocketed.

Nike, by accident, had found the perfect image. Connors was one of the best players in the world and he had what the company's marketing folk describe as an "edge''. Nike, who had only been serious players in the sportswear business since the mid-Seventies, signed up their first stars: John McEnroe, and the man who was to become the most famous basketball player in the world, Michael Jordan.

The Chicago Bulls' guard quickly became an integral part of Nike. The Air Jordan line, which was designed in consultation with him, was soon the most sought-after footwear in the United States, and Jordan had become the ultimate endorsement icon. The poor fought over the latest lines in the ghetto while the rich sprinted into Bloomingdales for theirs.

Nevertheless, McEnroe more accurately reflected the spirit of Nike man. His supreme talent was the main attraction, but the manner in which he attracted controversy was also important. In England, Eric Cantona and Ian Wright, who are also signed to Nike,have a similar challenging attitude to authority. The feisty tone of Nike's ads - "1966 was a great year for English football; Eric was born" - complements and capitalises on those qualities.

"We have an ethos that promotes `irreverence justified'. Nike loves sport but not necessarily the bureaucracy that surrounds it," Scott Garrett, the company's European advertising manager, said.

A Nike footballer is not just selling football boots, but representing the values which Nike believe will sell their products. The more controversy they attract, the stronger that association becomes. Nike's sponsorship of athletes in sports for which they do not yet make products (Shane Warne and Ian Botham in cricket and ice hockey's Wayne Gretzky) betrays that strategy. They are selling to aspirations of individualism, not just to a wish to play sport better.