Nike is the largest sports brand in the world, worth close to $16 billion. So, how does one of the world’s most recognisable brands cut through the clutter on social?

In this article I’m going to discuss how the brand uses the two largest social media platforms, Facebook and Instagram, to communicate with its diverse audience, share any interesting observations that I came across diving into the respective profiles and share some of its success stories.

Note that I’ll be focusing on Nike’s organic social media activity in this piece, rather than paid campaigns. Let’s kick off with Facebook.

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How Nike uses Facebook

Like most global brands, Nike has separate Facebook pages for each of its product categories. This includes golf, skateboarding and Nike+ Run Club, as well as two football pages – one for the American version of the sport and one for the version everyone else in the world plays.

Notably, Nike Football (the proper version) has more Likes than its main account (44 million versus 32 million) and even more than the Facebook page of its closest rival, Adidas (which has 35 million). This is possibly a reflection of the association consumers make between Nike and ‘the beautiful game’, given the long list of popular campaigns the Oregon-based sports brand has produced – both past and present.

Nike Football Presents: Awaken the Phantom (ft. Coutinho, Mal Pugh, De Bruyne, Neymar, 10R & Pirlo)

Be the one they fear. #AwakenThePhantomThe new Nike PhantomVSN is available now at nike.com/footballFeaturing Philippe Coutinho, Mallory Pugh, Kevin De Bruyne, Neymar Jr., Ronaldinho Gaúcho, Andrea Pirlo, Genarro Gattuso, Xavi Simons, Aubameyang Pierre-Emerick, Tiwa Savage, Wizkid, LEGENDURY BEATZ and Legendury Beatz Mutay.

Posted by Nike Football on Friday, 10 August 2018

The brand has a dedicated page for specific product ranges like Air Max and Air Force 1, as well as a page specifically focused on women’s products and its female athletes, Nike Women. The former shows that the brand doesn’t solely focus on participatory sports on social, but also on its most famous sportswear lines, seeing these as standalone entities. And the latter demonstrates their recognition of the subtle differences between men’s and women’s relationship with it as a brand.

One key observation is that the brand uses Facebook a lot more sparingly for its organic social output. Since Facebook changed its algorithm earlier this year it appears the company is playing to the rules of the platform and only using Page posts for its bigger campaigns (like the #AwakenThePhantom campaign above).

As Nike makes its biggest athletes (both past and present) and their achievements the focal point of its posts on the platform, posts do still generate a lot of engagement through likes and comments.

Outplay yourself.Roger Federer, Melbourne's defending champion and holder of 19 major titles, just beat his own record, by winning 20. #justdoit

Posted by Nike on Sunday, 28 January 2018

(With that said, much of the engagement with these posts is in the form of customer service queries and opinions on Nike as a brand, rather than with the creative itself).

Data from Social Bakers shows that although the page isn’t used in the same way that it may have been in the past, its follower count rose by a just over a million over the summer months into the autumn.

This is perhaps a result of big sporting events like the World Cup, Wimbledon, the NBA Finals and The Open where marquee Nike Athletes such as Cristiano Ronaldo, Lebron James, Serena Williams and Tiger Woods took centre stage, thus soliciting interest and encouraging follows.

Alternatively, as more consumers look to social media as their first port of call for customer service, it could be that Nike’s fans are heading to its Facebook Page to get real-time responses from the company or air any grievances in a public forum. As mentioned just earlier, it certainly seems like they are.

Interestingly, Nike’s most-talked-about 2018 activation – its purposeful 30th anniversary ‘Just Do It’ Colin Kaepernick campaign – is completely absent from Facebook. This may have been in a bid to avoid any negative or controversial backlash that a social media team would have to manage, or it may have been consigned to a more targeted paid social campaign.

The only social channel on which Nike acknowledged the campaign was Twitter, with a retweet of Colin Kaepernick’s post.

Considering that Nike enjoyed a 31% spike in sales in addition to $43 million the campaign generated after the multichannel campaign went live through general media buzz and unpaid exposure, it seems clear that Nike has relied on the power of its brand and social media to spread the emotive campaign.

The ‘Just Do It’ anniversary campaign was reported to have been mentioned 5.2 million times on social media in the 72 hours following its release – so we can probably forgive the sports brand for omitting it from Facebook News Feeds far and wide.

How Nike uses Instagram

According to Social Blade, Nike has the fourth largest following of any brand on Instagram, and with 82.6 million followers on its main profile at the time of writing, Instagram is clearly where the majority of Nike social fans flock to.

Nike uses its Instagram account slightly more regularly than its Facebook Page, publishing posts on average about once a week. One reason for this could be to the rising popularity of the photo/video sharing platform, which reached 1 billion monthly active users earlier this year.

Another reason may be the (almost) exclusively visual nature of the platform, which is better-suited to the high-quality imagery and video content the sports brand produces for its followers to consume.

The brand also keeps things consistent. By highlighting its athletes or sports teams in its posts using photo editing software, using concise copy that has a clear, motivational tone of voice, Nike sends a message that fans’ focus should be drawn toward the people that make Nike the brand it is: the athletes that it partners with.

One product line that uses Instagram to great affect is Nike Running. Collective running and running clubs have surged in popularity in recent years due to their inclusive nature, and Nike has capitalised on this by aligning its content on Instagram to reflect this behavioural shift.

It mixes offline and online content to give users of its Nike+ app and products the chance to compete and connect with friends and fellow fitness enthusiasts, as well as paying attention to finer details like naming its running profile ‘Nike Run Club’- adding to the community feel fans get from the page.

Unlike Facebook, Nike doesn’t use Instagram to exclusively champion its diverse range of athletes, but also artists like Kendrick Lamar – whom the brand partnered with last year – and full-time comedian and part-time fitness fanatic Kevin Hart.

Nike has used the platform’s full repertoire of functionalities by also playing around with IGTV. Adopting similar approaches to the likes of Instagram favourites National Geographic and Movember, Nike has used the long-form video feature to produce a series of documentary-style videos following two everyday people in their individual attempts to get fit and push their bodies to the limit.

Instagram’s IGTV shows potential but is not yet a free lunch for brands

Working with ordinary people and not just world-renowned athletes and influencers is something that the brand has done consistently, both online and offline, to great effect. Nike’s IGTV ‘docu-series’, which began in September, has racked up a total of almost 1.4 million views.

Nike’s main brand rival, Adidas, doesn’t even come close to matching Nike’s popularity on Instagram, with roughly a quarter as many followers (22.9 million) on its main channel. Nike’s Instagram success stands as a testament to the highly immersive feel of its posts and its visual content. In other words, the sum of its parts makes for a powerful aesthetic that I think is reflected in its popularity.