2003: Business - Frank talk typifies Nike’s ad alliance

By Gene Yasuda

Five robot puppeteers. One prima donna headcover. One global icon. And one legendary, and sometimes tyrannical, commercial director.

Toss them all together and you get the latest installment of Nike’s often-acclaimed advertising: A duet of witty repartee between Tiger Woods and his golf bag pal, “Frank” – the ubiquitous feline headcover that comes to life in the new TV spots.

It remains to be seen whether this campaign, which debuted this week, will be a success. But it certainly continues Nike’s legacy of unconventional creative content. Though the company has focused on golf for only a handful of years, its commercials already have gained attention – for better or for worse – because so much advertising in the category borders on the boring. In fact, it is rare to find golf ads that don’t regurgitate refrains like “It’s longer. It’s softer.” Yada. Yada. Yada.

So why are Nike Golf ads – and Nike commercials in general – consistently different?

For starters, the sports equipment giant has access to one of the top creative shops in the advertising industry, Wieden & Kennedy. Nike also has the resources to hire one of the most renown directors in the field, Joe Pytka.

WK literally has grown hand-in-hand with Nike Inc., and has played a pivotal role in the creation of the Swoosh brand. In a business where agency-client breakups are the norm rather than the exception, Nike and the Portland, Ore.-based agency have been together an almost unfathomable 20 years.

The partnership took off when founder Dan Wieden penned the famous slogan, “Just Do It,” and has grown to produce memorable spots with Bo (Knows) Jackson, Michael Jordan and Spike Lee (aka Mars Blackmon), among others. The agency has since parlayed its success to land other major clients, including ESPN (This is SportsCenter), Miller Brewing Co., Calvin Klein and Coca-Cola.

But those credentials didn’t guarantee accolades when Nike and WK shifted their attention to golf.

Indeed, just as Nike had to understand how to operate in golf – adjusting from shipping thousands of sneakers to big-box sporting goods to handling incremental orders from small pro shops – it needed to learn a lesson or two about golf advertising.

When it entered the ball category, for example, Nike executives – with the help of WK – latched on to “accuracy” as a selling point. Spin and distance claims were overused, but no one had tried to sell accuracy, they said then. But in their pursuit of an unconventional pitch, they lost perspective that accuracy is an attribute that many players don’t ascribe to golf balls.

Occasional mis-steps, however, don’t discourage WK.

“If you never step forward enough, you’ll never be able to do something truly different, and most times, the truly different is what’s remembered,” said Jim Riswold, who has served as creative director for nearly all of the Nike Golf campaigns. Unlike many agencies, WK never tests its ads with focus groups before releasing them to the public. The agency believes focus groups, by their very nature, are risk averse.

With Nike Golf rapidly expanding its product offerings, the company directed WK to focus more on ad spots that weaved in “product stories” rather than those that were strictly brand-building initiatives. When Nike first broke into golf, for example, it aired “Golf is an invitation” – a dramatic, black-and-white montage that didn’t pitch clubs or balls, but simply tried to speak to the spirit of the game and position Nike as an authentic golf brand.

Now, WK must use Woods to promote game-improvement products the world’s No.1 player won’t be using.

The solution? Breathe life into Woods’ signature headcover, Frank, who needles the world’s best player for not using more forgiving equipment such as the Nike Pro Combo irons.

In one spot, Woods prepares to fire at a pin tucked precariously close to a greenside bunker and says, “I’ve got this shot” – only to be second-guessed by Frank, who insinuates Woods could only pull off the feat if he was using the Pro Combo irons. After Woods dumps his shot in the sand, he glares at Frank and utters menacingly, “Don’t say a word.” Of course, Frank can’t resist, and in an “I-told-you-so” manner, again plugs the new irons.

No surprise, Nike spared little cost to make the Woods-Frank exchange as real as possible. Company officials keep financial details private, but some expenses were obvious. Frank appears to be an ordinary sock, but it is a robot that can make countless facial expressions with the help of five operators using wireless remotes.

To direct the campaign, Nike hired Pytka, a mountain of a man who has created more than 5,000 commercials. He has cajoled and admonished a host of celebrities – Jordan, Ray Charles, Cindy Crawford, Larry Bird – to perform for clients Pepsi, McDonalds and Nike, among others. In an interview with Directors Guild of America magazine, Pytka said, “I use fear and intimidation. It works for the Catholic Church, and it works for me.”

With Pytka’s help, WK executives created the humorous new spots, which they say help portray Woods as something other than a one-dimensional golf machine hellbent on winning majors. That’s important in broadening Woods and Nike Golf’s appeal to a wider audience.

“With the introduction of Mars (It’s got to be the shoes), we could put Jordan on a pedestal, yet still be able to pull his pants around his ankles whenever we wanted to,” Riswold said. “This campaign is going to allow us to do the same thing with Tiger. We can show a more human side and show how he interacts with one of his oldest friends, Frank."

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