Trevor Cairns
Jan 14, 2024

Why a tagline won’t ‘just do it’

Sporting goods brands need to define what they want to stand for and why.

Pictured: Trevor Cairns. (Photo used with permission).
Pictured: Trevor Cairns. (Photo used with permission).

In 1988, Nike and Reebok had roughly the same market share. Both brands had new campaign lines coming out. Nike was about to unleash “Just Do It” for the first time, while Reebok was rolling out “Because life is not a spectator sport.”

But Reebok changed its campaign line 14 times in the next 20 years, according to Sir John Hegarty, founder of Bartle Bogle Hegarty. “Just Do It,” on the other hand, still runs to this day—more than 35 years later.

The sports category today is full of taglines: “Better never stops,” “I move me,” “Forever faster,” “Forever forward”—but it is unclear what story they’re trying to tell.

Nike’s origins date back to an Oregon track in the late ’60s when Phil Knight’s running coach, Bill Bowerman, tinkered relentlessly with his shoes in search of improved performance. In time they launched a footwear brand whose relentless search for continual progress has remained at the core of the brand’s positioning ever since.

“Just Do It” is the articulation of that positioning. It’s empowering, direct, universal and personal. It resonates with both the amateur and elite and transcends demographics, borders and social and cultural differences. Nike has also reinforced what “Just Do It” means over and over again — continuity, context, creative excellence and outstanding execution—in its communications. Many of its greatest ads—Walt Stack, Failure, Dream Crazy, Hello World, Find Your Greatness, Freestyle, Rooney St George—have flown under the JDI flag. 

As a platform, it remains as creatively relevant today as it was when Dan Wieden, founder of Wieden+Kennedy first coined the phrase. 

But in the broader marketplace, this enduring success has blinded today’s brand owners. Most sporting goods brands seem to be jumping to the tagline without hitting the positioning hard yards. They seem to ask themselves “What’s our ‘Just Do It’?” instead of taking a step back to define what they want their brand to stand for and why. 

That’s led us to the point where many sports brands today seem almost indistinguishable beyond their brand mark—a lazy parade of identical imagery and lines that can easily be flipped from brand to brand without complaint. Yet these brands are operating in one of the most dynamic and exciting categories possible. 

Puma’s “Forever Faster,” for example, has been a consistent sign-off in its communications for over a decade, but it has arguably occupied little space in consumers’ minds. Nike stands for inspiration and innovation because it relentlessly reinforces its message through comms and products. Puma, on the other hand, has not built the same associations. “Forever Faster” feels hastily built from its partnership with retired sprinter Usain Bolt. 

Without a robust, long-term brand strategy, sport can become a short-term scrap for eyeballs propped up by expensive sponsorship contracts.There is little point in showing up on players’ kits or tournament sponsorships if nothing distinguishes brands from the competition except for their trademark. 

It's time for brands to forget about sport’s next “Just Do It” and return to the brand strategy playbook. Brands need to understand why they exist, identify the consumer they need to satisfy, embed their brand strategy throughout the organisation and articulate it to their consumers. 

And they need to stay the course. Brand teams are always the first to get bored of their own ideas. Consistency must overcome marketing teams’ constant need for reinvention.

Fast forward 35 years and Nike is valued at $160 billion, whereas Reebok was sold in 2021 for $2.5 billion. Of course, that isn’t solely attributed to robust brand strategy and marketing excellence, but I’d suggest it comes down to aligning the entire organisation around a central cause and executing against it relentlessly, both long-term and short-term.

We’ve got a bumper year of sports coming up in 2024—an Olympic year, no less. For the sake of all fellow sports fans out there, let’s hope some brands find a way to raise the creative bar.

Campaign UK

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