5 Luxury Branding Lessons from Nike

Nike is the most valuable sports brand on the planet.

At the end of 2015, Forbes estimated the swoosh was worth $26 billion. For context, the second ranked apparel brand, Adidas, was valued at $6.2 billion, with the relative newcomer, Under Armour, in third position at $5 billion.

Since its founding in 1964, although originally called Blue Ribbon Sports until 1971, Nike has been able to reach that number one position by building a brand that promises enhanced athletic performance combined with fashionable lifestyle appeal.

Whilst Nike has always been an innovative sports brand at its core, in recent times it’s made a noticeable shift to positions itself as a luxury brand. This slide in perception toward high-end premium is not just about driving the top and bottom lines, but also to differentiate further from its competitors who are right behind them in the chasing pack.

So by analysing what Nike has done, it’s possible to draw some insights on how to make your brand more luxury. These 5 lessons are applicable for all fields, right through from consumer products to professional services.


1. Minimalism

Embrace simplicity and white space. Nike has applied this to both its in-store and online environments to create an experience that is more attuned to the fashion houses of Paris rather than that of American sports retailers.

© 2012 Jonathan Leijonhufvud. All Rights Reserved.
A Nike pop-up in Beijing by Maggie Peng & Albert Tien. (Jonathan Leijonhufvud)

By stripping down all unnecessary noise, Nike allows the consumer to focus purely on the offering. The use of clean lines, grids, and boxes, alongside a colour palette built around black and white, deliver a sense of contemporary premium. In regards to typeface, Nike employs sans-serif fonts with the use of all capitals for titles and headers. In combination, the visual identity mirrors fellow luxury brands, rather than those operating in the mass market space. Even a simple region selection page communicates sophistication and splendour.

Nike Website Gate
A screenshot of the minimalist nike.com region selection page. (Nike)

Regarding visuals, they’ve looked beyond the company name to build an iconic set of symbols that reinforce recognition of the brand. Nothing here says ‘Nike’, but it’s immediately recognisable from any one of these logos.

2. Emotion

All purchases are a combination of rational and emotional decision making. Whilst rationally driven buying decisions tend to equate to a need, emotionally driven buying decisions tend to equate to a want. In the luxury space, emotion is a necessity. Even if there is an apparent rational need for a shopper to buy a product, a strong emotional call to arms will help build a powerful connection to your brand.

Nike Twice The Guts Double The Glory
A Nike ad released after Mo Farah’s two gold medals at London 2012. (Nike)

When buying a Nike product, you’re not just buying a pair of trainers or a t-shirt. So good is their emotional branding that you feel you’re buying something much more powerful than that; aspiration. Embedded within that is an undeniable belief that you will take your performance to the next level, confident you could challenge any professional, Olympian, or World Champion who was put in your path. You are the protagonist of your own epic tale, a hero or heroine who will destroy the villain that lives inside your head saying it can’t be done, that you don’t want it bad enough.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and sometimes that is all you need. No gimmicks. No nonsense. No messing. Just emotion.

Find Your Greatness
A screenshot from the Nike ‘Rise & Shine‘ commercial for the 2012 London Olympics.


3. Exclusivity

You are unique, just like everybody else.

Whereas mass market brands aim to be inclusive, luxury brands aim to be exclusive. Yet Nike sits at the grey area between the two, almost as an inclusive exclusive brand — or is that an exclusive inclusive brand…

As a result, Nike has been very clever in building a feeling of exclusivity by making consumers understand that as an athlete, they are unique. From the elite to the amateur, everyone is made to feel welcome into the Nike family as they are united by their passion for sports — even if you come in dead last.

But to build a sense of exclusivity whilst targetting the mass market is the paradox Nike finds itself in. This is where Nike takes a lesson from the tailors of London’s Saville Row. Traditionally, luxury has never been about picking up something expensive off the shelf; it’s about a bespoke design that meets your exact requirements, much like buying a made-to-measure suit.

NikeID Blank Canvas
A screenshot from NikeiD.

Nike was one of the first brands to embrace customisation with the launch of NikeiD in 2012. This online platform allows consumers to take a shoe as a blank canvas, and tailor it with colours, materials, patterns, initials, jersey numbers, and motivational texts of their choice. For Nike, this is a key part of its push to achieve $5 billion in online sales by the end of 2015, and for the consumer, this is the opportunity to create your very own, one-of-a-kind shoe.

NikeID Get Started
A screenshot from NikeiD.


Luxury is about aspiration, and a corresponding luxury price tag can help stoke that ardour into a roaring flame of desire. Stamping a premium price on a product can build a greater sense of luxury, whereas a low price for the very same product can build a perception of lower quality, which in turn will make it less desirable.

Limiting supply can increase the lust for a product, as fundamental economic theory shows that this will boost demand. And as this gap between supply and demand increases, so too does price. Nike has successfully created Limited Edition offerings to further reinforce its luxury positioning, but it does help if you can tie it into one of the greatest movie trilogies of all time.

The 2015 Nike Mag
The limited edition 2015 Nike Mag was only available via auction with all proceeds going to the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research. (Nike)


4. Quality

Luxury demands quality.

No matter how inspiring the story or how aspirational the brand, the quality of your offering must match that of the promise. From creating the first shoe to incorporate an air bubble in 1987, to designing footwear for astronauts to workout in space in 2013, Nike’s innovation has always been matched by the quality of the final product and the materials used. This foundation has allowed it to move into the luxury bracket, and a little time spent browsing their current product range is testament of this.


Nike Aeroloft Hero Jacket
The Nike Tech Fleece Aeroloft, $350

The Nike Tech Fleece range combines engineered fleece with goose down for the ultimate winter-weather protection. But you won’t overheat, as there are laser perforations between the down for ventilation.


Nike Lunarglide 7
The Nike LunarGlide 7 Flash, $140

The cushioning of the Nike LunarGlide shoe was inspired by the pictures of astronauts bounding weightlessly on the surface moon, hence the name. By taking design elements from moon boots and applying them to athletics, Nike has been able to create a running shoe that is smooth, supportive, and comfortable.


Nike Vapor Flyknit
The Nike Vapor Untouchable, $200

Introduced just before the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, Nike Flyknit got its breakthrough on the world’s biggest sporting stage. Whilst sports shoes had traditionally stopped just below the ankle, the Flyknit continued to seamlessly combine it with the foot and lower leg. The concept was transferred to American Football and the above Vapor Untouchable combines a one-piece Flyknit with a carbon fiber plate to deliver flexibility and strength. But not even the storytellers at Nike could have scripted a better debut for Flyknit, as the World Cup’s winning goal, from Germany’s Mario Götze, was scored wearing, you guessed it, a pair of Nike Flyknit boots.

Remember. Luxury demands quality.


5. Consistency

And the final piece of the puzzle that ties everything together is consistency. You must reinforce and maintain your brand promise of luxury across all channels. Both online and offline. All the time.

From online to brick & mortar, packaging to product, the written word to spoken voice, paid media to owned & earned, and digital services to social media, the experience of Nike is connected by a golden thread of luxury.

That’s it.

Just do it.


Want to see a video that embraces these lessons? Here’s The Best Sports Ad of 2015.

Header image from Nike via BI.

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