This article is part of a four-part series about famous brand rivalries.
Part IHow Coke and Pepsi’s rivalry shaped marketing — and where it goes next
Part IISneaker supremacy: Nike and Adidas battle for brand love
Part IIIBurger wars: How Burger King’s rivalry with McDonald’s reverberates through adland
Part IVHow Miller Lite and Bud Light's epic clash shook the marketing world
Nike and Adidas have been ensnared in a relentless rivalry that has commanded the athletic wear industry for nearly 60 years, attempting to out design, out recruit and out cool one another in order to dominate the now $310 billion global sporting goods market.
The running boom of the late 1960s and ‘70s kickstarted the original sneaker battle, but fierce competition fueled Nike and Adidas through the millennium as they cozied up to athletes and celebrities and expanded their product lineups, succeeding in embedding themselves into consumer culture along the way. The duo has played critical roles in influencing modern marketing by moving beyond a narrow focus on product to writing the playbook for building a timeless brand through storytelling and purpose.
“Both brands deliver a feeling, a specific value that goes beyond the functional benefits of wearing the shoes,” said Niels Neudecker, head of brand performance at Kantar.
Financially, Nike is leagues ahead of Adidas, but the latter manages to punch above its weight in terms of sales and is considered one of few to rival master storyteller Nike regarding brand love. Now the rivalry has taken on newer terrain in digital and metaverse channels, with products ranging from core sports shoes to casual sneakers, athleisure and non-fungible tokens (NFTs).
“You can't remain on top unless you're fighting to stay there. And part of that is keeping your name out there,” said Nicholas Smith, author of the book “Kicks: The Great American Story of Sneakers.”
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The starting pistol
Adidas’ precursor comes from humble beginnings in Germany, where brothers Adi and Rudolf Dassler started Gebrüder Dassler Schuhfabrik (Dassler Brothers Shoe Factory) in 1924. They manufactured some of the first spiked running shoes and quickly won the favor of Olympic runners Lina Radke and Jesse Owens. A dispute split the brothers and the company into what would soon become Adidas and Puma, with Adi Dassler starting anew with his eponymous brand that would lead the running shoe industry for nearly two decades.
Before Nike swooped into the picture in the mid-1960s, co-founder Phil Knight — then a graduate student at Stanford business school — wrote a paper on the plausibility of importing high-quality, low-cost running shoes from Japan and selling them in the U.S. market, which at the time was dominated by Adidas and Puma.
“Being a business buff, I knew that Japanese cameras had made deep cuts into the camera market, which had been dominated by Germans. Thus, I argued in my paper that Japanese running shoes might do the same thing,” Knight wrote in his 2016 memoir, “Shoe Dog.”
Knight returned to his home state of Oregon two years after graduating and started Blue Ribbon Sports, partnering with his former track coach at the University of Oregon, Bill Bowerman. Blue Ribbon Sports mostly flew under the radar for several years, importing shoes while the duo tinkered with original designs, spotting an opportunity in the budding jogging movement of the late ‘60s and ‘70s.
“The Nike co-founder always had his eye on being No. 1, and being No. 1 meant you had to unseat Adidas at the top of the table. So this was something [Knight] spent decades working toward, not just in terms of finding where in the world you could make a cheaper, almost-as-good product but also studying what makes professional athletes flock toward Adidas rather than some other brands,” Smith said.
Adidas was still top dog at the time, making athletic shoes for several sports and linking with soccer teams around the world. Converse was a major contender for basketball shoes, but there wasn’t much of a market for shoes specific to running, according to Smith.
“It goes back to marketing 101, where you have to find a need and fill it,” he said. “Nike was able to ride that wave to really corner the running shoe market at a time when a lot of the other brands focused on other things.”
‘They want to be the hero’
Knight’s battle for supremacy — fueled by a “grow or die” mindset, per his book — reached new heights in the mid-1970s, when Blue Ribbon Sports was renamed Nike and paired with the now-iconic swoosh logo. Sales were doubling every year, and Nike had signed its first athlete endorsement deal with tennis star Ilie Năstase. The company hired John Brown and Partners to bring its advertising up to par with the company’s skyrocketing success, introducing Nike’s first ad “There Is No Finish Line” to convey the endorphin high that runners chase while touching on Nike’s vision of inspiration and innovation. The poster was an instant hit with consumers and marked a subtle but important change in how the brand approached marketing. Instead of emphasizing athletic shoes, it put the consumer in the spotlight and broadened Nike’s focus beyond product.
The ad and subsequent shift in positioning presented Nike as a brand with personality at a time when many brands lacked one, drawing on its mission statement to bring inspiration and innovation to every person.
“As a brand, they want to be the hero, they want to challenge the status quo,” Neudecker said. “They want to challenge what's there. And that's a very athletic attitude. As an athlete, you always want to challenge the status quo; you always want to be better.”
By the time it debuted its 1988 “Just Do It” campaign — ranked one of the top taglines of the 20th century — Nike’s revenue exceeded $1.2 billion, led by the success of its Michael Jordan-backed Air products, and had acquired footwear brand Cole Haan.
“When you then compare Nike’s [mission statement] to Adidas’, it's very different,” Neudecker said. “I think the interesting word in Adidas' is the word lifestyle. They're not seen as the hero. They're more in the lifestyle perception also because the people they sponsor and the people they collaborate with.”
Today, Adidas often partners with stars outside of traditional sports: musicians, artists, creators and the like. But in the mid-1980s, this was a novel concept. Its Superstar basketball sneaker quickly crossed into street fashion when hip-hop group Run-D.M.C. began sporting the shoes as part of their signature look, immortalizing their endorsement with the song “My Adidas.” The brand’s early links with non-athletes laid some groundwork for how Adidas would position itself for decades to come, though it maintained its ties to several soccer teams and tournaments around the world as Nike — and rival Reebok — attempted to draw interest via athlete sponsorships.
Sports marketing pioneer
Before Adidas, few brands tied themselves so closely to high-performing athletes. Adidas made a name for itself early on by manufacturing some of the original spiked running shoes, first getting the invention onto Olympians’ feet in the 1920s and 1930s. Later, the nailed-in spikes were replaced with screw-in studs and soon won favor among soccer teams across Europe in the 1950s.
Adidas’ secret to success during this period centered around product innovation and athlete partnerships. Founder Adi Dassler met with runners over the years to gather feedback and observe potential design improvements to support their needs.
By forming direct partnerships with champions, the company joined Wilson Sporting Goods and General Mills’ Wheaties in helping to pioneer the now booming sports marketing industry.
Adidas’ steady growth took a turn just a few years after it went public, posting record losses in 1992 and nearly going bankrupt. New leadership in Robert Louis-Dreyfus spurred a fresh direction that built on the brand’s more than 50-year legacy. Louis-Dreyfus steered the sleeping giant back toward growth by taking Adidas from a sales-driven company to a marketing-oriented one. A 1995 marketing slogan nodded to how far the business had come: “We knew then. We know now.”
Nike by this point had unseated both Adidas and Reebok as the top purveyor of athletic shoes, but Knight’s “grow or die” mentality continued to drive the company forward.
Agency Wieden + Kennedy was Nike’s main hype-master during the ‘90s, producing memorable work that influenced sports and culture like few other brands. The “I am Not a Role Model” ad starring Phoenix Suns’ power forward Charles Barkley helped Nike to root itself as a brand with an edgy sense of authenticity. 1995’s “If You Let Me Play” featured young girls stating the health and societal benefits of sports participation.
Net sales by 2000 were closing in on $9 billion and $5 billion for Nike and Adidas, respectively. But sales and quality products alone can’t sustain a brand’s top-dog status long-term, according to Kantar’s Neudecker.
“Nike and Adidas are aware that they have to invest in brand-building and have to set trends for consumers,” he said. “The past was very much about product innovation, but now it's more and more about the role that you're playing in society. There [are] so many aspects to that perceived personality, and this is where we see a trend where both Nike and Adidas try to build their brand in society.”
"You can't remain on top unless you're fighting to stay there."
Author, “Kicks: The Great American Story of Sneakers”
Just as the brand-building battle between Nike and Adidas ramped up around the millennium, the companies steadily diversified their product lines through acquisitions. Nike had Cole Haan and Bauer Hockey, and in 2003 would snap up Converse. Adidas in 1997 acquired Salomon Group and its brands Salomon, TaylorMade, Mavic and Bonfire, opening up new opportunities in snow sports and golf. In 2006, Adidas bought Reebok for $3.8 billion.
“You have to reinvent yourself but be consistent with your purpose. It’s important that you know what you stand for and innovate within this space, [but] therefore it can limit how you’re diversifying into other categories,” Neudecker said.
Parlaying brand personality
Unlike other categories such as the fast food industry, retail rivalries tend to sidestep direct sparring or name-calling. Instead, the competition between Nike and Adidas is now playing out on the court, in culture and online, and in how they act on their values. Both brands are rooted in running, but Nike today positions itself as a sportswear brand while Adidas appears to center around a streetwear and lifestyle approach for added cool factor.
Nike has leaned on storytelling and creative ads for years, aligning its overall brand to its people-focused mission statement. In doing so, it has fostered a perceived personality around social responsibility.
Look no further than the 2018 ad featuring former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, overlaid with the line “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.” The campaign thrust Nike into the center of a political controversy surrounding Kaepernick and the discussion of taking a knee during the national anthem to protest police brutality and racial injustice.
A calculated risk
While Nike has a history of taking stances on social issues, the radical success of its 2018 bet on controversial football player Colin Kaepernick for “Dream Crazy” had timing on its side. Starting in the mid-2010s, brands were deploying bolder marketing tied to hot-button topics as they sought to find their place in a polarized society and more deeply embed purpose into their strategy.
Despite some blowback, the campaign lit up the cultural discourse and catapulted the discussion around brand purpose into the spotlight. Following the ad’s release, Nike’s brand value rose $6 billion, suggesting that risky marketing can pay off if the commitment to purpose is sustained.
In the years since, not even Nike has been able to replicate the impact of “Dream Crazy,” perhaps because messages have been more unifying during COVID-19 or, as the health crisis wanes, nostalgic for more carefree times.
“What keeps [Nike] consistently relevant and resonant with Gen Z is their values-based marketing approach and cultural credibility. It may feel like ancient history now, but their 2018 campaign with Colin Kaepernick is emblematic of what keeps them relevant,” said Jack Bedwani, CEO of agency New Moon. “Both Nike and Adidas are always trying to find their edge on each other, so therefore are down to try new tactics and [niche] culture strategies to build momentum.”
Adidas, on the other end, has baked environmental responsibility into its brand DNA over the years, introducing its annual social and environmental report in 2001. The reports have helped to position the company as one that takes sustainability seriously, making Adidas an early mover in the area that’s now table stakes for a brand wishing to woo environmentally conscious Gen Z.
A brewing rivalry
Adidas’ legendary three-striped logo has become virtually synonymous with soccer, landing partnerships with FIFA, UEFA and their respective tournaments over the years. Since 1970, Adidas has supplied the official match ball for all FIFA World Cup games. It sponsors a swath of national teams, leagues and clubs, and is known for signing major sponsorship deals with individual players. That’s not to say Nike hasn’t attempted to chip away at Adidas’ stronghold on soccer: It introduced a Nike Football app in 2014 (later folded into the brand’s core app) and signed a massive agreement in 2021 to sponsor the U.S. National Women’s Soccer League through 2030.
When it comes to sports, Nike typically parlays its bigger marketing budget into ads, while Adidas tends to favor athlete and event sponsorships. The brand likely anticipated a win during the 2014 World Cup, when two of its sponsor teams faced off in the championship match of the Adidas-sponsored tournament. But Nike stole much of the thunder with a guerrilla approach and creative ads; a five-minute animated spot, “The Last Game,” became one of Facebook’s most shared posts to date.
“Whenever there's a big World Cup happening, Nike usually pulls out all the stops and makes commercials with all of the stars in one single spot,” Smith said, referencing Nike’s epic World Cup ads from 2010 and 2014 that featured a roster of global soccer stars. “We just had the Olympics, [and] the World Cup is happening later on this year. You're going to see a lot of more intense, more focused advertising tied to that.”
"Both Nike and Adidas are always trying to find their edge on each other, so therefore are down to try new tactics and [niche] culture strategies to build momentum."
CEO, New Moon
Both brands use sports as an avenue to embed themselves into conversations and culture, working alongside other efforts around celebrity collaborations that are amplified by consumer interest in product drops. Adidas and Nike are pretty vicious in the collaboration battle as a means to tap into the moment and attract cult followings of younger, fashion-forward consumers. Adidas has ties to tastemakers like Beyonce, Pharrell Williams and Stella McCartney, while Nike boasts product deals with Travis Scott, Supreme and Drake.
“Adidas’ recent collabs with Prada and Gucci were fun, but I don't see much happening from a creativity and style perspective now that the sheen from the Yeezy collab has faded a bit,” Bedwani said. “Same with Nike, it feels very athlete-focused at the moment and not as much championing emerging creative talent like they were a few years ago…”
Smaller brands like New Balance and FILA are partnering with “zeitgeist-y tastemakers and creatives” in refreshing ways, per Bedwani, potentially foreshadowing where the collaboration tactic may head.
“The streetwear/fashion side is more fluid, with the power rankings truly changing day to day,” Bedwani said.
The race ahead
The core tenets of Nike and Adidas’ marketing remain mostly unchanged from the past two decades, guided by storytelling and tie-ups with celebrities and athletes. But innovation in both product and marketing arenas could help them sustain momentum in the years ahead as tentpole sporting events return and consumer tastes skew toward athleisure.
The challenge for behemoths like Nike and Adidas in the years ahead isn’t to do more or go bigger into the trend du jour, but rather, determine how to show up in ways that feel local and personalized, per Bedwani.
“While they continue to show up in all the big ways on all the big platforms, they'll need to engage at deeper levels to achieve the intimacy, nuance and localization that are native to the scrappier upstarts, secondhand resellers and cultural figures that Gen Z gravitates toward,” Bedwani said.
Nike embarked into the metaverse in late 2021 with a “Nikeland” space on gaming platform Roblox and extended the experience to Snapchat with an augmented reality lens. It snapped up RTFKT in December 2021 in an attempt to capture early dominance in the NFT shoe space. Adidas’ bet on the buzzy virtual environment also came in December, when it tapped creators to build its decentralized playground in blockchain-based gaming world The Sandbox and collaborate on an NFT with Bored Ape Yacht Club. While success in the metaverse is in many ways still being defined, the brands’ experiments with newer channels mirror their decades-long trendsetting legacies as they look to court favor among the next generation.
“This [rivalry’s] future is in innovation. While both Nike and Adidas are looking forward to Web3 and the metaverse, their strategies differ,” said Dustin York, an associate professor of communication at Maryville University and former Nike consultant.