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


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