Men’s NCAA basketball draws huge audiences, which is why companies such as Nike work so hard to get their products on the athletes’ feet, seeking to increase their brand awareness. But that outcome also can backfire when their products fail to perform as expected, because in that case, the brand’s failure is spotlighted on a vast stage.
Notably, during a recent game, the Nike shoes worn by Duke University’s Zion Williamson—widely noted as a promising prospect and likely high draft choice for the NBA—simply came apart. The seam holding the shoe’s upper to its sole ripped, leaving Williamson sprawled on the court with a knee sprain. Cameras caught his pained expression, his sock showing through the ripped seam, and the large Nike logo featured on the broken shoe.
The images spread within seconds, such that Nike faced a substantial brand crisis without any warning or much time to respond. It quickly expressed concern about Williamson’s health, even while pointing out that it was an isolated incident. Unfortunately, that claim was not particularly compelling for consumers, many of whom watched the game live and understandably might have questioned the quality of their own shoes.
The other audience watching avidly was Nike’s competitors, which might use the incident to raise the tenor of those quality-based questions. In so doing, they could point to previous product failures by the company, such as those involving NBA players in the past whose Nike shoes malfunctioned, including Manu Ginobli, Aaron Gordon, and Andrew Bogut. Such challenges likely would go beyond consumer marketing and involve lucrative endorsement deals. That is, athletic gear companies compete vigorously to get contracts with universities and professional teams to equip all their players. If Under Armour, for example, could come to Duke University with a promise that its shoes would never fail, it might convince the school to switch away from an existing contract with Nike.
Such outcomes are not a given though. Nike responded promptly, apologized for any issues, and highlighted its long history of manufacturing high-quality equipment. Thus the incident, while likely creating some bad days for the company’s public relations department, ultimately could have little effect on its overall reputation.
1. Imagine you are Nike’s public relations manager. What steps would you implement immediately to respond to such a public product failure?
2. What marketing actions might Nike take in the longer term to deal with any potential negative effect of this incident?
Source: Alexandra Bruell, “Zion Williamson’s Ripped Sneaker Puts Nike in a Bad Spot,” The Wall Street Journal, February 21, 2019