Jaipur, Nov. 12: Scott Bedbury — the man who conceived Nike’s Just Do It campaign — is an ad man with a difference. He isn’t afraid to tell the world of his ads that bombed.
Scott remembers the biggest boo-boo in his career: it was a Nike campaign called Hiking in Africa.
Created on a shoestring budget of about $500,000, the Nike ad was shot in the interiors of Africa. Vignettes of the African veldt fold dissolve into visuals of a couple of Samburu warriors in their colourful outfits with spears in hand. Cut to the shoes they wear in the African jungle: it’s Nike! The last shot shows one of the African tribesman sitting on a mound who spouts off animatedly in Swahili — probably singing the virtues of his Nike shoes.
It was the first Nike ad that was attempted in a foreign language. The day after the ad was aired in the US — used to signify the universality of Nike’s appeal — Scott received a call from Stuart Elliot of The New York Times. “I liked your ad. But do you know what the guy was saying'”
“I think he was saying Just Do It in Swahili.”
“Well,” drawled Elliot. “I just have a linguist on the other line who knows something like 200 sub-dialects in Swahili and ….”
“I felt the blood drain from my head,” recalls Scott. As it turns out, the African tribesman was making a very voluble complaint that his feet were hurting like mad because the shoes were too small. What the Samburu warrior actually said was: “I don’t want these. Give me big shoes.” “He was a size 13 and the creative head organising the shoot had given him a size 9,” says Scott.
Scott called up the creative head behind the shoot and asked him why he had used that visual in the ad. “Well, his comment was made with the most emotion; so we put it in!”
The ad scuffed the image of the world’s largest athletic shoe and apparel company but it taught Scott a remarkable lesson: never ignore the smallest detail. “You should sweat the small stuff,” says Scott.
When Scott came on board at Nike and worked to help transform it into the juggernaut that it now is, Nike founder and CEO Phil Knight’s advice to him was as sweeping as it was broad: “Just do great things.” Knight asked Scott to never be afraid of making mistakes. “But just don’t make the same mistake twice.”
After the Swahili ad, Nike went on to make many other ads in other languages but they never made the same mistake again. They hired a forest of translators to deal with every little word uttered in the ads.
Scott left Nike in the winter of 1996 to transform a small American coffee shop called Starbucks into a global brand.
In recent times, some of the ads have even dispensed with the use of the word Nike, named after Greek winged goddess of victory. They just use the fat checkmark sign called the Swoosh that every Nike shoe carries. You can never be too careful with words: who knows what boo-boo you might make!