June 13, 2016 by Stuart Laybourne
Curry’s Kicks, A Lesson About Brand Perception
In the late 80’s, Spike Lee directed a now famous commercial series for Nike’s Jordan shoe line called “It’s Gotta Be the Shoes”. It was a seminal moment for the marriage of branding and athletic fashion. In this vein, late last week, the proverbial internet caught fire over something purely aesthetic and subjective in nature. Design, as we like to call it. Unless you’re psychotically embedded in sports Twitter (like I am) or a Sneaker Head, you probably didn’t see the destruction of fashion design that went down.
For the last couple of years athletic manufacturer Under Armor has been playing catchup, attempting to capture marketshare from industry-leader Nike and fellow competitor Adidas. In the athletic-wear game, the exclusive signing of athletes to wear and endorse an individual brands product is paramount to creating a product that is perceived as “cool” and therefore viably purchasable by the target demographic. In this world of fashion design, looks and perception clearly reign over function. Under Armor has had a meteoric rise aided by great athlete signing “wins”, including Jordan Speith in golf and two-time defending NBA most valuable player Stephen Curry. However, last week, UA released their newest shoe line, the Curry 2 Low “Chef Curry”. Designed to compete with Nike’s sneaker designs, the internet didn’t take too kindly. Almost immediately, the world’s largest focus group, Twitter, kicked into action and let the world know how they felt about the middle-aged, white suburban, dad looking shoes.
But here’s where it gets interesting.
For some reason, terrible Photoshop aside, they suddenly look better. And, as is pointed out in this tweet, this is one of Nike’s best selling shoes of all time:
From a visceral, gut-reaction level, the Nike shoe sure looks like a shoe you could imagine grandpa playing bridge in. So why is it that Steph Curry’s shoe gets roasted, and the Nike’s sell? The answer is brand perception. Many people have attempted to construct a definition around what branding is. The dictionary defines it as “the promotion of a particular product or company by means of advertising and distinctive design.” Advertising legend David Ogilvy defined a brand as “The intangible sum of a product’s attributes: its name, packaging, and price, its history, its reputation, and the way it’s advertised.” But to me, these definitions ring hollow. Because, while we as marketers and creatives can help define and shape the conversation around how people should feel about a product or idea, ultimately a company’s brand is defined by how the consumer actually feels and reacts to a said product or company. We can amplify a message, but how that message is received and the way consumers shape the message is what really matters. The Curry 2 Lows’ immediate public reaction is emblematic of exactly this idea of brand perception. Nike has a long tradition of innovation and design excellence that helps sub-consciously shape opinions. They have brand equity built over years that makes us, as consumers, immediately trust the product they create as “cool”. Under Armor, as a new player in space, just doesn’t quite have that brand equity to fall back on yet.
So, how does Under Armor get there? The only way is with excellence in its product. Design really, really matters. At the end of the day, this principal works in all forms of consumer products; whether it’s a website, a digital product, or shoes. Even if you attached the hottest name in basketball to your product, at the end of the day, the creative execution, organically defined and shaped by intangible human feelings, will always be more important than the forced conversation from advertising.