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Uniformity without conformity

Nike, Oregon partnership opened floodgates for uniform branding

When No. 2 Oregon visits Scott Stadium to play Virginia Saturday, some of Nike’s most persuasive and representative advertisements will be on the field.

In the nearly 20 years since Nike co-founder Phil Knight first approached the Oregon athletic department and endeavored to build a previously staid football program in his company’s own image and likeness, the Ducks have adopted a provocative, dynamic visual style which has triggered a revolution in how college football teams and their uniforms function as branding vehicles. Companies now shell out millions — billions, actually, if you count Nike’s $1.1 billion deal to dress the NFL — to plaster logos all across a team’s apparel, from game jerseys to socks for the fans. It all stems from Knight applying his company’s doctrine of meshing aesthetic and performance innovation to his alma mater.

“There is an attempt at the core to improve the performance capabilities of athletes on the playing field,” said Paul Swangard, managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at Oregon’s Lundquist College of Business. “Nike’s ability to wrap a story around that innovation is kind of what makes their formula work.”

Brave new world

Even before brandishing 54 unique permutations of their “duckwing” uniform set in each of their games since 2009, the Ducks carved out an identity as sartorial trailblazers. From printing the school name on shoulder pads to donning players in canary yellow to using multiple helmets in a season, Nike laid bare its marketing strategy for outfitting Oregon early in the 2000s: get people talking, one way or another, and keep them on their toes.

“It used to be teams would change … some schools once in a generation, some schools once in a decade, some schools once every five years,” said Paul Lukas, proprietor of the popular Uni Watch website and ESPN column. “Once Oregon got into their crazy period of the early 2000s or mid 2000s, it became more like once a season, or once a week.”

Currently charged with dressing 80 of the 126 FBS schools, Nike has employed similar techniques for other teams in recent years, from saddling the previously generic North Carolina with black, avant garde uniforms to creating jagged, abrasive number typography and chrome headgear for Baylor.

Attempts to reach Nike, Inc. went unrequited.

Meanwhile, Nike’s college football competitors — adidas, Under Armour and Russell Athletics — have largely followed their lead. Virginia fans will be familiar, in particular, with Under Armour’s rampant experimentation and heavy-handed marketing of Maryland’s uniforms, while adidas has introduced risky, nontraditional alternatives at pillars of tradition such as Nebraska, Michigan and Notre Dame.

New is better

In describing the strategic underpinnings behind Nike’s gaudy uniform designs and constant tinkering, Dr. Manish Tripathi, a sports marketing guru at Emory’s Goizueta Business School and co-contributor to the Emory Sports Analytics website, invoked the theory of the attention economy. Attention economy adherents suggest that people’s attention, like oil, grain or a college education, constitutes a valuable but scarce commodity that companies such as Nike strive to obtain with ostentatious practices.

Whether you deem Oregon’s uniforms gorgeous or garish this weekend, you’ll still be thinking and talking about them, building the notoriety of the Nike brand and ultimately adding money to Knight’s corporate coffers.

“Bad publicity is also publicity,” said Asst. Commerce Prof. Natasha Foutz, who specializes in marketing. “Even if you say, ‘oh, I hate that uniform,’ guess what? You’re going to talk about it. It’s a win-win situation for both the university as well as Nike.”

The constant tinkering has also succeeded in selling actual brand merchandise for the same reason EA Sports sells millions of copies of its Madden video game franchise each year to people who already have older versions. Impose constant, incremental change on an entity without sacrificing the essence of its original appeal, and you can turn misers into spendthrifts.
“Every fan who gets behind this brand wants the latest and greatest,” Swangard said. “So the uniform that they wore three years ago, they’ll never wear again, but it’s in the fan’s closet and he wants the next uniform that comes out or the next T-shirt or the next piece of headwear.”

Aggressive uniform brand marketing also contributes to what Swangard called a “waterfall effect” on the other goods Nike and their competitors produce. Should a consumer visit a Dick’s Sporting Goods soon after watching two Nike-clad college football teams in flashy digs play each other, and should those uniforms connote sleek, streamlined performance, he or she is more likely to trust the Nike brand.

“Sports fans are very loyal to brands,” Foutz said. “That’s why there are a lot of sponsorships.”

In the end, the “new is always better” template established by Nike works — to some extent, on recruits as well as fans — when it conveys the existence of the two things people crave from athletic gear: distinctive aesthetics and cutting-edge performance capabilities.

“Not only are you going to be different,” Tripathi said of Nike’s message, “but you’re going to do well athletically if you wear this.”

…But not always

The problem with the argument for relentless innovation is that some of the schools that best build brands ignore it. Ohio State, Alabama, Texas and LSU have deployed the same general uniform designs, with a few tweaks, for generations. Yet Nike will pay them more than Oregon because those programs’ prestige and iconic familiarity to American fans ensures that by merely wearing the Nike swoosh, those programs will move huge quantities of product. And really, shoulder stripes and funky number type on an Alabama jersey would alienate more than allure fans.

“I don’t really buy the notion that it is somehow necessary or that recruits only respond to the flashy uniform, because it’s demonstrably untrue,” Lukas said. “If you look at schools that don’t have flashy uniforms, they’re some of the top [programs] in the country.”

The partnership which blossomed between Nike and Oregon in the late 1990s resulted from a unique conflation of interests. Knight wanted to resurrect a program with the same balance between imagination and pragmatism that governed his company; his alma mater and favorite school lacked a football identity. That the relationship has flourished owes not to the rationale of constant change holds everywhere, but to Nike’s exorbitant spending on the perfect plan in ideal circumstances.

“There’s not necessarily that same sort of football tradition that existed at Oregon before [as other programs],” Tripathi said. “In the end, you still have to have a product that resonates, that people derive value from.”

The three apparel minnows chasing in the wake of the Nike whale therefore, should at least consider Foutz’s insistence that they would excel by contradicting the Nike-Oregon model for some schools. A uniform’s “visual signature,” as Lukas calls it, must be coherent and sensible in the context of the college it represents to most effectively build the brand in a favorable way — whether that means novelty or orthodoxy.

Nike imbued college football uniforms with unprecedented branding potency by stressing new and different at Oregon, but it wasn’t necessarily the emphasis on novelty that made it so. The more important legacy lies simply in how Nike and Oregon made uniforms a focus for fans and players, and thus a point of emphasis for companies.

“We know they’ve got good uniforms,” Virginia senior offensive tackle Morgan Moses said this week. “They’ve got hundreds of helmets and we might have two helmets, but it’s still going to protect your head.”

Still, he brought them up.