Are multinational companies the true urban planners and culture entrepreneurs of the future? Read about how Berlin nearly became Niketown, and how Copenhagen recently experienced the latest, contemporary urban branding strategies.
By Peter Mørkeberg Hindsby
The war to capture people's attention in public space has escalated since branding was born. Individuals are no longer insulated from commercial messages, no matter where they go, and there are indications they have had enough. Anti-branding troops might win the war against the advertising industry and commercial interests, as a growing number of surveys show how over-exposure of a brand can actually have negative effects on sales. Several major global players recognized this factor long ago. They understand that if you want to reach the attractive segment of young people between 15 and 40 years of age, you need to “soft-pedal” the message - and that's what they're doing.
The whole thing started in the beginning of the 1980s, when a group of younger black hip-hoppers protested against the over-branded companies Puma and Nike by purchasing and flaunting the lesser brand, Adidas. The hip-hop group Run DMC made a gigantic hit with the single “My Adidas,” in which they sang about the white sneaker with black stripes, and which would soon become the most sold sneaker in the US. Suddenly Adidas was cool. The brand had gained the necessary street credibility without doing a thing—in fact, not doing a thing was what did it.
To win back lost market share, Nike purposely refrained from prosecuting shoplifters for a period of time They also looked the other way when cheap imitations and stolen goods were being sold in the black underground culture, which was the “in” trendsetter for the rest of the younger American population. By taking a stance that appeared to be challenging authority and by supporting American sub-culture, they soon won back market share.
Adidas' strategy was the starter's pistol for a new urban marketing strategy, which took protest as its image. Nike, for one, bought the rights to the 1970s John Lennon classic “Revolution” and used it as background music for their major Air Jordan campaign starting in the late 1980s. The former German foreign minister, Joshka Fischer, donned Nike sneakers and dubbed himself a street fighter, in opposition to the political establishment of Germany. The obvious result was: the shoe quickly became the most-sold sneaker in Germany.
In the early 1980s, you could see the enfant terrible of tennis, Andre Agassi, in an ad where he suddenly begins playing tennis in the middle of a busy Manhattan intersection. When the intersection was transformed into a tennis court, the city was viewed in a new way—as a playground. In a later spot, an airport becomes the soccer field where a number of the world's best soccer players have fun. “A little less conversation, a little more action,” or in other words: “Just do it.”
Nike took the strategy to new heights around the end of the 1990s. Some bad press and a general aversion to the major brands' aggressive campaigns raised the need to adjust the strategy. Consumers in the target group had become more individualistic and reflective. The sale of dreams and heroes no longer had the same effect in a time when everyone had become his own hero. Consumers create their own meanings via personal experience in the city and the world around them. To become a successful brand it had become necessary to camoufalge the brand and turn it into an element of everyday life.
Berlin, which was considered the most trendy and future-oriented city of the late 1990s, was chosen as the testing ground for Nike's new strategy. Nike set out on a precisely-targeted campaign, “Freedom lies behind the fences,” by sponsoring—or rather, being curator of—various subculture activities in Berlin. In what was akin to acts of defiance toward city fathers, Nike staged semi-illegal basketball courts at construction sites, soccer cages, graffiti competitions and hip underground parties. What's interesting is: Nike did everything it could to conceal its role. There wasn't any huge Nike logo at mid-court, but just a little discrete Nike swoosh on the backboard. At the soccer fields there were small signs bearing legends such as, “soccer spikes only,” and which were amazingly similar to official city signage. At other sites people encountered signs with texts such as, “It is strictly prohibited not to play at this site.”
Nike copied city signage, which was usually restrictive, and the urban space was transformed into a playground for skaters, soccer players and basketball players. The Nike name was not visible anywhere, only a little swoosh, followed by the word, Berlin. But Nike didn't stop there. In all Nike shops, people could pick up free stickers with directions to the nearest “playground” on them. With Nike's help, people became designers of their own sections of the city. Consumers became something like sports freedom fighters or street guerillas. When city officials began to impose restrictions on when playing was permitted and when it was not, Nike really felt the wind building in its sails. And this was precisely what Nike had hoped for. Not surprisingly, Adidas soon followed suit.
The camouflage strategy became even more refined. Nike opened a number of ultra-modern lounges at various points in the city. Three hundred red keys were distributed to a select group of DJs, designers and other luminaries of the subculture network. They had no idea Nike was behind it. In all the lounges, Nike had modestly placed one thing that linked the venue to the brand. The idea was to penetrate the target group at a more subliminal level. By becoming an integral part of the cultural codes valid in the target group, the camouflage strategy opened new dimensions in branding. “Surrounded by cool people, who play cool music in a cool atmosphere, and ... hang on ... Nike is a part of this. Maybe Nike isn't so bad after all,” comes close to the desired reasoning behind it. Not so bad, is it?
The strategy is reminiscent of the artistic avant-garde of the 1950s and 1960s. Its members criticized the calculated rationality of society and social alienation, and voiced opinions about renewed development of urban space—a new mode of reading, decoding and using the city in the name of freedom. It was a mode allowing people the leeway to express themselves creatively and playfully in opposition to “the system.”
Isn't this precisely what Nike was doing when it hung a sign, similar to an official public sign, pointing downwards toward a defunct underground station that had been made-over into a “half-pipe” for skaters? And that's not all; it was right under the German parliament's new home, Reichstag, which was under construction at the time. Mixed signals? Maybe, but it all adds up to the same thing. The perspective doesn't really matter—whether your name is a neon glare at the top of city hall in Copenhagen, or whether you go undercover against the system and support subculture activities—it's still all about selling shoes.
In the spring of 2004, Volkswagen approached a German event bureau to get them to create super-targeted hype for the launch of their new model, Fox, which was said to have been tailor-made for young, urban types. When Volkswagen used Copenhagen for the launch of its new model, market strategists went nosing around in young, artistic environments. Street artists were hired to decorate a hotel in the middle of the city. DJs bid welcome to hipsters at parties in Club Fox and in another part of town curious souls could watch the actual moment of creation of a work of art. For a little while, the city became a pulsating organism that breathed and gasped under the sign of the gasoline-driven fox. Copenhagen had become Foxtown.
Just as it was with Niketown/Berlin, the automobile manufacturer Volkswagen was virtually never mentioned in the launch of ... er ... their new automobile. You really need to keep your eyes open. You may belong to the generation of young urban individuals who are already part of a major marketing strategy. Whether the fox needs to be chased from the hen house is up to the individual reader. In the meantime, we should look around to see if we can spot the next urban marketing strategy. It's probably already out there.
Peter Mørkeberg Hinsby is writing his thesis on the history of ideas, and is an intern at the Copenhagen Institute for Futures Studies.