Nike Fuel: marketing or mindfuck?

It’s not often that the power of an idea and the way it’s presented manages to blast its way past all my cynicism and take root in the scorched wasteland of what passes for my soul after over a decade of working in marketing.

Everyone who returned from SxSW was raving about it. Ben Cooper wrote a post about it. And the presentation by RG/A North America’s chief creative officer Nick Law at Circus – about Nike+ FuelBand – excited me to the point that I was scribbling down his every word, and more importantly, the pleasure centres in my brain were screaming WANT at the sight of the Fuelband’s sleek lines and elegant rubber curves.

I’m going to go out on a limb to say this is the most sophisticated piece of mindfuckery of the 21st century.

Nike Fuel

While the fuel band is not yet available to buy in Australia, I’ve noticed a few around already.

The hype and the scarcity factor are beginning to build here to the point that I think it’s guaranteed to sell out faster than a new iPad – in the US they can’t make them fast enough.

In a nutshell, it measures the wearer’s activity using the same set of metrics- whether tap dancing or strolling – and enables users to set goals, brag about their achievements and compete with other users on social networks. Nike will be bringing out a related range of shoes that record movement to provide an even richer data set.

The messaging includes such clarion calls as “Life is a sport. Make it count” and claims to “tell you more about yourself than you ever knew before”. The API is available for developers to incorporate into apps. On the site is a running tally of steps taken and calories burnt by Fuel band users. It’s not new – Jawbone created a very similar product last year (although it flopped and was recalled), and activity trackers like Fitbit have been around for years.

But what Nike have done is much, much cleverer.

It’s not just the beautiful design. It’s not the seamless user experience. It’s not even the evangelical fervour of the meme-tastic montage TVC (reworked to remove the highly offensive reference to ass on the original Groove Armada track, and which in fairness was the work of Wieden + Kennedy, not R/GA). It’s not even R/GA’s talent for technology and understanding that, in Law’s words, “all media is software, networked and interactive.”

The thing that makes this so remarkable is not the only the fact that R/GA’s relationship with Nike is so close and collaborative that marketing strategy actually drives product development, rather than the other way around. It’s also that the entire strategy hinges on anti-disintermediation, placing an entirely new layer of complexity between seller and buyer.

Nike and R/GA have created a branded ecosystem and we will fall over ourselves to go and live in it. The stroke of genius is in placing an interstitial between the relationship between status and symbol.

Status is not conferred by a tangible object, but is accessed through it. With Fuel, Nike excites desire not for an object itself, but for a fictional unit of currency – a measure of what they describe as motivation. Nike has branded an arbitrary, virtual metric, and you can only access it through buying products.

It’s something of a marketing game changer. When we remove products from the already questionable exchange that typifies advertising (buy this to feel that) and replace one part of the transaction with something that doesn’t even actually exist, it feels like a slightly worrying shift towards a dystopian future.

It’s a little reminiscent of one of the episodes of Charlie Brooker’s mini-series, Black Mirror (yet to be aired in Australia), in which citizens need units of currency called Merits gained by cycling on exercise bikes which power their surroundings, where everyday activities are constantly interrupted by advertisements that cannot be skipped or ignored without financial penalty and where gameshows have life or death power over viewers.

Nick Law R/GAI’m tempted to conclude that despite his charming ‘Patrick Swayze’s nerdy brother’ demeanour, Nick Law is, in fact, a robot from the future.

And it’s a future I’ll be watching unfold with fascination and fear in equal measure.

Cathie McGinn


  1. jk
    4 Apr 12
    11:00 am

  2. Add a little GPS tracking and it could revolutionise the way retailers measure footfall and customer browsing.

  3. beezlebub
    4 Apr 12
    2:12 pm

  4. that’s the 400th time i’ve read ‘dystopian’ this week

  5. dana
    4 Apr 12
    2:24 pm

  6. I still want one…and a Grill’d burger.

  7. Rushdie
    4 Apr 12
    3:39 pm

  8. “and you can only access it (motivation) through buying products” You sure about that?

  9. Jeepers
    4 Apr 12
    3:49 pm

  10. Couldn’t get past that opening sentence.

  11. MicheyD
    4 Apr 12
    3:50 pm

  12. I’m still not really sure what it is, but I want one…

  13. Marshy
    4 Apr 12
    5:20 pm

  14. “anti-disintermediation”

    Mind. Blown.

  15. jean cave
    4 Apr 12
    5:22 pm

  16. REd DWarf was my favourite “This-could-happen-in-your-future-Life” programme.

  17. Steffan Meyric Hughes
    4 Apr 12
    6:02 pm

  18. Love the piece! Love the idea of “what passes for a soul”. HATE “anti-disintermediation”. Therefore one mark off. 9 out of 10. Fascinating stuff, authoritative tone.


  19. IBJG
    4 Apr 12
    8:31 pm

  20. I was there – Nick Law’s talk at Circus. Equally as awed, taken aback.

    And, I want one. This costly piece of plastic, is essentially a stylised pedometer which links up to the digiworld. But it is ever so stylish, ever so today and is a beacon of power, call it what “fuel”, something beyond the everyday, whilst doing the everyday. Genius.

    Hold your head between your knees – I predict this thing will blow everyone away with its launch.

    Beam me up, Scotty.

  21. Tom Kelshaw
    5 Apr 12
    7:50 am

  22. Buy Fuelband so you can buy *into* it, sure, but don’t expect much in terms of true training/physical activity feedback.

    i’ve been wearing the Fuelband for a few weeks and by about week 2, the basic disconnect between gamified “Fuel Points” and any real physicial metric starts to get tiring.

    Fuel Points don’t relate to calories burned in any consistent way. It doesn’t detect if you’re at the gym, and lifting weights or doing pull-ups give the same points as raising a pint glass.

    It’s a remarkable marketing move, agreed, to move beyond apparel & shoes and sell data back to customers, but it’s currently a less-than-perfect “anti-product”. I wouldn’t expect to see many people wearing these after week 4.

  23. Richard Moss
    5 Apr 12
    9:25 am

  24. @ Beezlebub

    It’s been around a long time, must be its turn for an airing.

    John Stuart Mill – and I think it was around even before him. Orwell should have used it, probably did. I lived in it once for a short while, not very pleasant.
    I use Pulchritude a lot, much nicer word.

  25. neocube champ
    5 Apr 12
    11:05 am

  26. Personally I have been using a less glamourous but far more useful gadget by Adidas called micoach – its absolutely brilliant and combines a pedometer and heart rate monitoring to actually spur you into action.

    It hasn’t been marketed anywhere near as well as Nike Fuel, but its a much better system…

  27. Gus
    5 Apr 12
    2:53 pm

  28. Nice piece Cathie. Have you seen this similar product by Jawbone? The Up bracelet.

  29. Graham
    10 Apr 12
    10:24 pm

  30. Bought one at SXSW and love it, already up to 100,000 fuel (for what that matters?). My wife’s fuelband, on the other hand, broke on the flight back. We were told by Nike customer service that we can’t get a replacement because we life in Australia, and that we shouldn’t buy things from other countries that aren’t available in our own.

    Moral of the story is, all the great product development and advertising in the world means nothing if your customer service staff are robots that blindly follow rules.

  31. me
    12 Apr 12
    11:48 am

  32. Put a Nike logo on it and it’s different.

    I believe, happy to be corrected if I’m wrong, the Hot chip technology for Quicksilver was the first. Although it was confined to snowboarding and surfing, the community aspect was pretty good. You can even track your waves via GPS.

    I have seen Jawbone also.

    There is a lot of similar tech out there – just not launched by Nike – therefore not as big.

    This is repackaging, with a Nike logo on it and then advertised properly.

  33. Brand Panda
    18 Apr 12
    2:55 pm

  34. @me

    Ever heard of the ‘third to market*’ rule? You don’t want to be first, you want to be third, so you can learn from the mistakes and launch in a really big, really cool way.

    (*Somebody credit my reference please?)

  35. Offal Spokesperson
    18 Apr 12
    3:34 pm

  36. meh

  37. Ross
    23 Apr 12
    12:30 pm

  38. I had also seen the similarities to the “merits” in Black Mirror ep2. A bit frightening…