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Game Ready Gear. Orders: (202) 677-5801 / gamereadygear@gmail.com » Nike and the Oregon Ducks’ Brand Experiment Rule an “Attention” Economy

Nike and the Oregon Ducks’ Brand Experiment Rule an “Attention” Economy

By now, just about everyone around sports knows of the unique, privileged marriage between the NCAA Oregon Ducks and Nike President Phil Knight (a 1959 alum of the school).

Perhaps writer Michael Kruse put it best in his August 2011 piece “How Does Oregon Football Keep Winning?” — There is next to no reason the University of Oregon should have a good football team. Eugene is a small city and is not near a major media market, there’s very little local college-caliber talent, and for literally 100 years the Ducks did almost nothing but lose. But the past decade and a half has been different. They’ve been to the Rose Bowl, the Cotton Bowl, the Fiesta Bowl, and last year’s national championship game. How did this happen?

The Ducks are a new breed. They didn’t earn eyeballs and fans because they played outstanding ball on the field. They became a leading program because they insisted that people watch. They’re the undisputed champions in an attention economy, thanks to cutting-edge uniforms and gear provided by Nike.

Yellows and greens. Blacks and metallic grays. Highlighter neons and stormtrooper whites. There are more than 500 combinations of helmets, jerseys, pants, socks, the whole nine. What the Ducks struggled to build on the field — an identity — they manufactured through design. They’ve built one of the most unmistakable brands in sports.

Michael H. Goldhaber, head of a think tank and visiting scholar at Berkeley’s Center for Research on Social Change offers this take — Economics is the study of the allocation of resources that are scarce. These days, more and more, information isn’t scarce. Stuff isn’t scarce. What’s scarce is attention. The companies that win in an attention economy are those that win the eyeballs of people who have too much to look at. Too many ads. Too many screens in too many places. Too many games on too many channels on too many days of the week. This new economy is based on endless originality. If you have enough attention, then you can get anything you want.

John C. Beck, co-author of The Attention Economy: Understanding the New Currency of Business simplifies it this way — Just go back to what gets attention in the animal world. One thing is fear. Another thing is bright colors.

Richard Lanham, UCLA professor and author of The Economics of Attention: Style and Substance in the Age of Information adds the following insight — If attention is now at the center of the economy rather than stuff, then so is style. It moves from the periphery to the center. Style and substance trade places. Push style to the extreme and it becomes substance.

Nike designers have their own perspective. Designer Tinker Hatfield asks — What is a more visible way to turn up the heat and create a personality than through the football uniforms? We wanted to be out there, to be purposely controversial. That’s a part of what we do that’s not very well understood. A lot of the sports writers at first hated it, and that’s actually what we wanted. If you’re purposely trying to stir up the nest and increase visibility, then you want them saying something. Creative Director Todd Van Horne summarizes the extent of the brand experiment — Blocky, standard letters became sleek, modern fonts. Wings on the shoulders? Diamond designs on the knees? Silver shoes worn at Southern Cal? Nothing is off the table. The paint for the dark green helmets was made with glass beads and cost $2,400 a gallon. They look hatched from an alien pod, sent to Earth to seek first downs and souvenir sales.

Writer Michael Smith speaks to the culture that’s sprung such a bold experiment — Tradition is great where it’s a sellable, marketable commodity. Alabama can sell tradition. Penn State can sell tradition. Michigan can sell tradition. At those places, tradition is the differentiation, but at the schools where it’s not? They have to go in the opposite direction. And no one has done that better, or more consciously, than Nike and Oregon, which for the purposes of this conversation are essentially one and the same. Oregon’s tradition, at this point, is the overtly embraced lack of tradition. Change.

Paul Swangard, managing director of the school’s Warsaw Sports Marketing Center, underlines their practical approach — It’s probably the easiest way for us to cut through the clutter of college football, to be undeniably known for something. If no one knows your product exists, there is no demand for your product, and at the end of the day it’s about 18-year-old kids. The uniforms are the key ingredient to getting those bodies there, and the bodies are what win you football games.

LeGarrette Blount, a current NFL running back who relocated from Perry FL to Eugene OR, kept it real — The uniforms were awesome. I loved them before the Rose Bowl, and then I got to know more about Oregon. Blount became a Heisman Trophy finalist for the Ducks.

This brings us around to perhaps the most interesting aspect of the experiment — the connection between the players and the uniforms. It’s dressed for success, with a twist. Jim Bartko, a senior associate with the school, outlines the plan — Our pitch is that every three years, each recruit who comes here will have a chance to work with Nike. They’ll specify colors. They’ll design the product and the look. Some of them get really into it, and some of them are actually working at Nike as designers.