Adidas vs. Nike: Battle of the Soccer Ads

Their vivid commercials may be remembered longer than the best plays of the Euro 2008. But will they sell more merchandise?

Euro 2008, the European football championship, produced some sublime moments of play even before the teams reached the quarterfinals. Think of Michael Ballack's arching free kick into the corner of the Austrian goal to give Germany the game, or Turkey's comeback from a two-goal deficit in the final 16 minutes to beat the Czech Republic.

But when it's all over and the fans have scrubbed the last traces of national-color face paint from their cheeks, what will they really remember? The commercials, of course. Like every international soccer event, Euro 2008 is also a fierce marketing duel between the two giants of soccer apparel, Adidas and Nike.

Bavaria-based Adidas (ADSG.DE) and Portland (Ore.)-based Nike (NKE) have taken radically different approaches to their advertising. Both companies tap the celebrity appeal of soccer gods like David Beckham or Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo. Nike's spot, though, has video-game-like intensity, while Adidas' campaign is deliberately slow-paced and almost old-fashioned.

Beyond Advertising

Nike hired film director and Madonna spouse Guy Ritchie to shoot its spot, which compresses a pro soccer career into two breathless minutes seen from the point of view of a player. (Check it out here.)

The Adidas campaign, which includes nearly an hour of film broken into 12 episodes, focuses on local teams of kids in backwaters of Europe such as the Isles of Scilly off the coast of Cornwall. (Check it out here.) Famous players arrive unexpectedly to kick around balls and offer coaching tips. The campaign by agency 180 Amsterdam is less a commercial than a documentary. Adidas clothes and soccer boots play a discreet role.

Although there's no overt sales pitch, the theme feeds into Adidas' "Impossible is Nothing" slogan. "The idea we were trying to get across is that just because you come from a less well-known part of Europe doesn't mean you can't be successful," says 180 Executive Creative Director Richard Bullock. "That distance from here to there is accessible."

While Adidas brings the soccer gods to earth, the Nike spot lets viewers hang out at Mt. Olympus. The commercial, by Ritchie and Los Angeles/Amsterdam-based ad agency 72andSunny, is shot through a player's eyes, giving viewers the illusion that they are experiencing the life of a footballer, from the day a famous coach discovers him in the boondocks to his debut on the national team.

Becoming a Soccer God

The spot opens in the regional leagues, as we arch a free kick over the heads of some defenders and into goal. As our view swivels to the sidelines, we see Arsène Wenger, coach of Britain's Arsenal soccer club, watching from the sidelines. Our eyes meet.

Next we are collecting our Arsenal uniform, and then Wenger is subbing us into the game—where an opponent powers by us to score. But then a teammate boots a hard pass across the field. We slam the ball into the goal. We're on our way to stardom.

The scenes that follow are frenetic yet coherent. We step out of a limo with our supermodel girlfriend into a crowd of screaming fans. We see the girlfriend's cold stare as we autograph a female fan's cleavage. We train so hard we vomit on our soccer boots—making Nike probably the first company in Madison Ave. history to sell its products by barfing on them. In a game against Barcelona we watch helplessly as Brazilian superstar Ronaldinho dribbles past.

The spot ends where it began, as we set up to take a free kick in front of the goal—only this time we're wearing Holland's national colors in front of thousands of fans. Fade to the Nike tag line, "Take it to the Next Level."

Adidas' campaign has a completely different feel, but it too mines the desire of every young footballer to share a pitch with the idols of the sport. Adidas and 180 made three short films, on the Isles of Scilly and in the tiny European principalities of Andorra and San Marino.

The Pros Drop In

The films begin by introducing a team of young, real-life local players, who weren't told what would happen. On the Isles of Scilly, the kids are mute with awe when Liverpool midfielder Steven Gerrard shows up at practice. He's only the first pro to pay a surprise visit. Liverpool striker Andriy Voronin drops from the sky in a small plane. Germany team captain Michael Ballack appears from behind a hedge.

By the time Beckham climbs out of a local resident's pickup truck, the kids bust out laughing—the whole thing is just too amazing. Beckham shows the young players how to use a certain spot on the inside of the foot to shoot one of his lethal free kicks. Gerrard later sleeps on the couch at one kid's home, asking: "Are you sure your parents are okay with me stayin' over?"

"My friends stay over all the time," the boy replies.

The mini-documentaries are a gamble for Adidas in a world where most marketers assume young viewers don't have an attention span of more than a few minutes. In fact, vignettes from the films will be spliced down to TV spots as short as 15 seconds. (A film for the U.S. market focuses on Beckham because of his high name recognition (, 7/13/07) there.) But Adidas is betting that football-obsessed youngsters can't get enough of their favorite stars, especially when the stars offer practical advice.

Both the Adidas and Nike campaigns are immensely entertaining, but are they selling merchandise? It's too early to tell. Adidas says its share of the European football market edged up to 40% in 2007, vs. 38% in 2006, and that Euro 2008 is shaping up to be even more lucrative than the last European championship four years ago.

Online Attention

But those numbers reflect sales before the campaign launched on June 16. In any event, advertising is just one part of a much larger marketing campaign, including giant likenesses of Adidas-sponsored athletes at locations such as the Zurich train station. However, in one indication that the Dream Big campaign is working, Adidas says the time people spend on its Web site has doubled since the short films went online. That's good for sales because the site directs people to more detailed product information.

Nike—which claims to be the global leader in soccer apparel—says the Next Level spot has been viewed 9 million times on the company's soccer Web site as well as on YouTube (GOOG) and other outlets. (Shorter versions are also running on European TV.)

One lesson of both campaigns is that Internet video has made advertising a pull rather than a push business. To draw viewers, marketers have to show them a good time and go easy on the sales pitch. "We pay a lot of attention to how the products line up, but the sell is very loose," says 180 creative director Bullock. "We're making pure entertainment."

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