Mark Ritson: Nike’s Londoner ad is great creative, but is the city-focused strategy right?

Nike’s new ad by Wieden+Kennedy, ‘Nothing Beats a Londoner’, is brilliantly executed, but by focusing on one city the brand risks alienating a much bigger market elsewhere.

I don’t know about you but when someone on social media tells me to “take a look at this video” my first instinct these days is to hide in the wardrobe. It’s either some highly suspect motivational film in which a man tries, fails, then eventually succeeds to achieve his goals, and his success is followed by an extremely cheesy set of life lessons from a bloke in Delhi, or it’s some sweaty young digital guru telling me to “hustle more” in a dire attempt to be the next Gary Vaynerchuk.

So, it was with some trepidation that I clicked on a video from an old advertising mate who had asked me to do just that on LinkedIn. What I saw next was, to my total surprise, one of the most wonderful and uplifting bits of advertising that I have seen in a long, long time.

READ MORE: Mark Ritson: Ignore all the waffle and set time aside for strategic thinking

I’m referring to Wieden+Kennedy’s little urban masterpiece for Nike, Nothing Beats a Londoner. By now you must have seen the three-minute manga mash-up of every sport on earth being played by a succession of ever more determined London adolescents, all dressed to the nines in Nike gear.

Aside from the celebrity cameos, breakneck editing and pulsating storyline this is also an ad that screams authentic London street culture. Well, at least it screams it to me, a middle-aged marketing professor who wasn’t very ‘down with it’ even when he was meant to be 30 years ago.

The strategy behind the execution

But the hypnotic creative execution is not the most interesting aspect of the campaign. All too often marketers are off assessing tactical execution in a subjective manner with little if any reconnaissance of the strategic fundamentals behind the campaign. Specifically, as with any marketing strategy, we must first ask who is being targeted. Then, what the positioning is behind the campaign. And finally, the objectives that the communication is trying to achieve.

For Nike’s strategy to make sense, the outer regions of the country must aspire to London life and I am just not sure that is true.

Items two and three are straightforward and wonderfully achieved with this ad. Clearly, this is Nike trying to transpose its eternal message of ‘Just Do It’ away from a more American, athletic context and onto the real, urban environment of our capital city.

Equally clearly, the strategy is designed to build, revitalise and bolster Nike’s master brand. The anthropologist Grant McCracken once called branding a “diecasting mechanism”, in which cold commodities are painted with cultural meaning through the process of advertising.

Nike is generating awareness and associations for its brand here and playing a blinder in the process. Whoever runs brand tracking for the company will be smiling next week.

But it’s that first meaty question of targeting that has me scratching my strategic head, even while my tactical feet are tapping to the ad’s soundtrack. This is very much a London ad. The locations, the ethnic mix, the references, the accents – part of its pleasure is that it is so demonstrably London in every one of its 180 seconds of unmitigated joy. Even London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, was impressed.

But is this the right targeting strategy? It’s clearly not an issue for Wieden+Kennedy, who were simply responding, brilliantly, to a brief from Nike to focus on the capital city at the expense of the rest of the UK. Nike’s new strategy is to focus not on global marketing but on a much smaller, much more defined, sub-set of locations.

Last year the company identified 12 cities – New York, London, Shanghai, Beijing, Los Angeles, Tokyo, Paris, Berlin, Mexico City, Barcelona, Seoul and Milan – as its biggest growth opportunities. Nike expects 80% of its growth to come from this urban shortlist over the next three years.

On the one hand, this is exactly the kind of marketing strategy so often missing from big brand thinking. A combination of laziness, strategic naivety and a steadfast belief in a big red book that tells them to target everyone because of science and stuff has resulted in an abject lack of good strategic decision-making in recent years.

It has been hard to find any major brand making clear and explicit choices about who it will and won’t target, and what it will and won’t stand for, and being equally selective in the strategic objectives it attempts to deliver on. All too often these days the answers to these strategic questions are targeting everyone, being everything and achieving all. Either that or Blockchain and a dude wearing a VR headset.

And yet here is Nike doing strategy properly with this new campaign. London represents only 13% of the UK population and yet it is receiving all of Nike’s creative and commercial attention. The essence of strategy, the great god/professor Michael Porter once explained, is deciding what you will not do. Well, Nike is being very strategic here and not directly going after 87% of the market.

Excluding a much bigger market

The creative results speak for themselves. Freed from the sloppy constraints of having to talk to everyone about everything all the time, globally – look at Coke if you want to see what that looks like – Nike has zoomed in on London and the cultural joy of the city and its young people to create an amazing campaign. The subsequent distribution and event focus on the city will also ensure that this campaign delivers in spades.

Yet, while I admire that strategic focus and the corporate courage it took to make these decisions, I have a niggling feeling there is something not quite right about the 12-cities approach. I get the idea that you should focus on the most concentrated and highest-potential markets. I also appreciate that cities like London, Tokyo and New York have extraordinary spillover onto the other populations that surround them.

But what I am uncertain of is whether a marketing strategy so intent on targeting London should do so in such an overt and explicit manner. There is a genuine risk that in capturing the mood of London youth so precisely, it will exclude the much bigger market outside the city limits.

READ MORE: Why brands are tapping into the power of alternative role models in women’s sport

I grew up in Cumbria; not the Lake District, but West Cumbria – a tough, working-class region with as much in common with Peckham as Eastern Mongolia or Chad or the outer rings of Saturn. I’m just not sure how that part of the 87%, or any other part of it for that matter, will feel about this campaign. For Nike’s strategy to make sense and for the campaign to become successful, the outer regions of the country must aspire to the London life as explicitly and enthusiastically as the Londoners shown in the ad, and I am just not sure that is true.

From the initial comments on YouTube there appears to be a very clear binary distribution between London-lovers, for whom the campaign resonates, and a significant proportion of other commentators who live elsewhere and dislike the ad intensely. “Never been so proud to be a Londoner” was a typical positive comment on YouTube this week. “London should be on Donald Trump’s shithole list”, was one of the milder critiques.

To be fair, social media comments are hardly the basis for any sensible analysis of a major piece of strategy like this. It will take time, some decent representative samples and a tight little questionnaire to find out if this campaign has improved Nike’s brand equity and, crucially, whether that swing occurred nationally or just around London and the Home Counties.

I appreciate London may well influence the tastes and trends of the rest of the country. I am just not sure that such an overt attempt to focus on it will have that desired impact. Nothing beats a Londoner, except perhaps the entirely different mindset of the other 87%.

Professor Mark Ritson will be teaching the next Marketing Week Mini MBA course from 24 April 2018. To book your place, sign up at

Hide Comments12 Show Comments
  • Al King 21 Feb 2018 at 6:39 am

    I think you may have over complicated things a bit. Where else has the combination of racial diversity, choice of sports, 24 hour living, terrain variety and proper 4 seasons weather? Nowhere. London is the right, possibly the only, choice. Thanks for sharing. Great ad.

  • John Bell 21 Feb 2018 at 11:00 am


  • Dave Tindall 21 Feb 2018 at 4:08 pm

    If Nike expects 80% of growth to come from the 12 cities it has identified, then surely as long as the ad doesn’t cause a decline in brand equity outside of London (and assuming it does of course increase within the capital as a result) then won’t this ad have done its job? The negative comment you have included in the piece Mark indicates a dislike of London more so than Nike and although the association wouldn’t help Nike, the sentiment is not aimed at them.

    An interesting article as always!

  • Sam Butler 21 Feb 2018 at 5:45 pm

    I think the urban, street hustle theme of the Ad will resonate with “millennial” groups that are based in other big metropolitan cities in the UK – the fact it is based in London will unlikely deter this demographic group from buying Nike. Nonetheless, as seen with the Brexit vote, and other cultural distinctions between the rest of the UK and London, Nike could very well alienate large swathes of the population who fall outside of this demographic. Large segments of the British population may not find the associations reflected in the Ad appealing which, consequently, will cause them to choose a competing brand over Nike. Personally, I think the North/South culture clash is greatly diminished amongst younger groups – who Nike wishes to target. Nike wants to remain relevant and cool, and you do this by speaking on the same level as young people.

  • Tadas R. 21 Feb 2018 at 6:35 pm

    Can’t really remember any clothing trends that came from rural England. Even Hunter wellington boots were made famous by a true Londoner Kate.

  • Chintamani Rao 22 Feb 2018 at 7:47 am

    Of course I don’t get the ad (I live where blokes who gives cheesy life lessons come from, Delhi) but if you say it speaks to London I’ll take it that it does. If Nike have chosen to focus on 12 specific cities that’s a gutsy strategy, which you laud, but “… what I am uncertain of is whether a marketing strategy so intent on targeting London should do so in such an overt and explicit manner,” you say. Are you suggesting they should have hedged their bets and waffled? You surprise me. As for the kids in West Cumbria, Nike is clearly not targeting the average: the ad will resonate with the minority that identifies with the London street culture, and that’s good enough. You seem surprisingly confused.

    • eric ritson 22 Feb 2018 at 11:53 pm

      There is a difference between targeting a segment – let us say Londoners – and targeting them with an explicitly London position. That is my point.

      Nike could still have targeted London with a campaign that implictly spoke to the values and lifestyle of Lodnon youth without the constant and explicit and exclusive reference to London / Peckham / Zone 6 etc and achieved the same resonance for the primary target without the now clearly exclusionist impact on other consumers.

      I’m not confused just unsure.

  • Andrew Hawkins 22 Feb 2018 at 2:02 pm

    I think this is a targeting challenge that Nike is very familiar with. Which teams to sponsor ? (only 4 Premiership teams this season, City,Spurs,Brighton and new additions Chelsea). Which stars to feature in the advertising ? Each of these decisions will be carefully weighed with the potential impact (opportunity cost) on their customer base. They have a pretty good track record of navigating the most tribal of sports and sports fans without really alienating anyone. Their compass ? Great, celebratory, entertaining advertising – and a decades-old mantra of ‘justifiable arrogance’. I understand your cautionary tone, but I think they will get away with it because of the sheer joy (your word) of the viewing experience.

  • Baz Worse 25 Feb 2018 at 2:40 pm

    You forget to mention that this key city strategy allows for some quite impressive cost-cutting & rationalisation. Regional offices like Frankfurt are being closed or scaled back, central & east European markets will now be predominantly run out of Berlin – not sure how it is elsewhere but this ‘Key-City Strategy’ certainly has many facets.

  • Kate Treen 26 Feb 2018 at 12:11 pm

    “I’m just not sure how that part of the 87%, or any other part of it for that matter, will feel about this campaign.”…
    From a marketer based outside London (I know!) and a parent of older teenagers responding to the ad – there is no N/S divide among younger audiences (not to the extent some of us middle-aged folk believe anyway). In the same way the Olympics generated capital city pride, the youth in my non-London-household love this ad with ‘my capital’ passion. I suspect Nike understands fully that if you truly understand your core market and develop relevant creative that excites it, you can expect your ad to resonate.

  • Dan Williamson 27 Feb 2018 at 1:12 pm

    Perhaps it’s hoped this will be the first in a series? I’d love to see the response or ‘diss’ equivalent ad made by those outside of London (ideally, again, with slick production and budgets). I’d love to see communities from Manchester, Liverpool, Bristol etc smash up some stereotypes and celebrate their city.

  • Richard Fullerton 4 Mar 2018 at 10:00 pm

    A friend sent me a link to the ad. I hated it. I just watched it again. I still hate it. It’s a pile of the proverbials, really. What is it about? I could only understand half the words spoken. I think I recognised one ‘famous’ person – Gareth Southgate. It’s basically a lot of noise and a mash of clips of video and CGI. What a mess. Clearly I am not in the target market as this ad went completely over my head. But then I’m over 50yrs and don’t live in London…. I think Nike should change their slogan from ‘Just Do It’ to ‘Could Do Better’.

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