Marketing Week recently published a story about Nike’s attempt to break the two hour record for a marathon. #Breaking2, as it was known, was Nike’s attempt to break the holy grail of running. The two hour marathon is the next in line of records that the experts said couldn’t be cracked. First it was the four minute mile (1954), then the 10 second 100m (1968), then probably a few others I can’t remember, but it’s one of the records that, to misquote Nelson Mandela, seems impossible, until it’s done.

nike breaking2
Credit: Nike

Having read the interview with Nike and spent far too much time digging into the Nike site, there are a number of lessons I’ve picked out that are applicable to any business from Nike’s plan to break the two hour marathon barrier. Such as…

Set Goals, Then Smash Them

The headline of the Marketing Week story, Nike on how setting an ‘audacious goal’ helped the brand work differently, tips its hat to the work of the legendary Jim Collins. In his book, Good to Great, which should be a mandatory text in universities, Collins talks about setting a Big Hairy Audacious Goal – a BHAG (pronounced Bee Hag) – as an essential part of building a successful business.

You’ll find much more information about it on Jim’s site, but as Nike’s Brand Communications Director, Mark McCambridge, said, “Once you set an audacious goal, especially when it is seemingly impossible, it allows people to kind of work differently.”

BHAG’s have to be scary. If they’re not, they’re not big enough. But they also have to be simple, clear and have a galvanising effect. If you can’t remember it or picture it, then it’s also wrong. A BHAG should have a unifying effect on your organisation and help people frame what they do every day, so, to repeat McCambridge, people can “work differently”.

Involve Everyone

One of the biggest challenges I face when working with companies is breaking down departmental walls. I HATE the concept of marketing being the job of the marketing department and spend a lot of time trying to build buy in from across the organisation.

Nike have clearly grasped this whole organisation approach. In the early stages of planning for #Breaking2, they worked out this wasn’t just marketing for marketing’s sake, but something everyone needed to get involved with. They pulled together a team that included engineers, designers, bio-mechanists, nutritionists and physiologists to work on the project.

Think of the implications for where you work. Ever heard someone say, “get marketing to do a poster for this”? OK, I’m old, these days they say, “get marketing to promote that on social”, but it’s the same thing – marketing as a standalone function that exists only to promote stuff.


I promise that if you integrate your marketing function with everything else that’s happening in your organisation, you’ll get more bang for it. If your marketing team/person is any good, they’ll have the customer’s best interests at heart and building your ideas and campaigns with them involved from the off will have more impact.

But it’s not just marketing you need to involve, bring in any team or people who can contribute and build something that’s amazing. If you’ve set a BHAG and done it right, they’ll all be shooting for the same goal and be on the same page, so why wouldn’t you?

Tell Authentic Stories

It sounds so obvious, but authenticity is the key to story telling. Not spit and polish, not spin, just authenticity. It’s a sad reflection of some marketing practices that McCambridge felt compelled to say, “we weren’t making anything up… it was a genuine story that happened”.

Nike covered the stories of the three runners Eliud Kipchoge, Lelisa Desisa and Zersenay Tadese in a way that brought people in to the project. It was a masterclass in story telling and one that really came to life because of the next point…

Use Experts

One thing that stood out for this project was Nike’s use of National Geographic to help them tell stories and create better video content.

I’m going to make an assumption that Nike has in-house creatives. That might be a huge team, or they might be outsources and just have a small capability, I don’t know, but I’m going to assume they have some creatives in a company of that size and the capability to design, shoot, snap and edit. Yet even they decided to go outside the bubble to bring in experts and make the end product better.

As McCambridge says, “had we taken it on as a solely Nike project and not brought in National Geographic as a partner it would have limited our ability to reach people”. Nation Geographic created a documentary (below) that focused on the journey to Monza, where the attempt was taking place, encompassing the training, the mental aspect, the science and the attempt on the day.

They also produced shorts, to focus a bit more on the athletes and provide social content, while using sports presenters and Hollywood A listers (Kevin Hart) to front the coverage on the day of the event.

Yes, this was a big budget production. But dig deeper and the lesson is there. Bring in the best people your budget can stretch to, to bring your marketing activity to life. Don’t overstretch, but don’t scrimp – with creatives, agencies and suppliers, you often get what you pay for.

Next time you’re not sure about bringing in outside help, re-read this quote from McCambridge. I’ve put it in bold because I love it so much.

“The key learning is looking at how you assemble the right team, because many times if you start from a point where you believe you have everything sorted out and you know the best way to do everything it doesn’t allow for true creativity to come through.”


Measure The Right Things


If you saw any of this project, you’ll know that no one managed to break the two hour barrier – Kipchoge came closest, missing out by 25 seconds.

You’ll know that athletics bodies did their best to talk down the attempt as an illegitimate attempt and distance themselves from the it. They complained the shoes provided assistance to runners and wouldn’t be allowed in competition and that any records broken wouldn’t be entered into the books because it was on an F1 track and not a race track or road circuit.

So the whole thing must have been a failure, right?

Absolutely not. Nike judged it a success, because they measured the right stuff. Over 13 million people watched the record attempt live across Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. The term #Breaking2 generated hundreds of thousands of mention on social media in the six months around the attempt (note how it’s not just the day of the attempt that mattered). The National Geographic documentary has had almost 2.7 million views

I’d be the first to admit that these metrics fall on the softer side of the scale. Most big investments in any company aren’t judged a success by social impressions alone. But that’s not what I’m suggesting. Understanding what it is you’re trying to achieve from the outset, and what success looks like, is the key to measuring success.

McCambridge and Nike made this a story about the runners and their quest for the impossible. In the end, it didn’t matter if one of them broke the two hour barrier or not, they’d found a story about humans pushing the boundaries of what is possible. They’d identified a story we can all relate to. And told it in a way that only Nike can.


PS Nike has a whole host of content about this attempt on their site. Well worth diving into.