An Olympic Anthem Made To Stick

The New York Times had an article today on successful and failed commercials from the just completed Olympics. I eagerly read it because I wanted to see what they said about the one commercial that I liked so much that I actually rewound it (using Tivo) and watched it many, many times. And I actually stopped my Tivo (an act that should be a metric of marketing success) whenever I spotted this commercial while fast-forwarding through Olympic commercial breaks. Not only that, I searched for the commercial on YouTube and watched it again. Not only that, I found the original source for the commercial and watched that again. Surprisingly, Stuart Elliott, the NYTimes article’s author, didn’t mention the commercial at all in his article on memorable commercials during the Olympics. So I will.

Nike’s United We Rise commercial takes film of Marvin Gaye singing the Star Spangled Banner at a 1983 NBA game and intermixes it with footage of the American Olympic basketball team preparing for the games. The effect, for me, was mesmerizing.

The appeal of the commercial, of course, is Marvin Gaye. To be able to take a national anthem and make it so different, so soulful, and so memorable is stunning even today. I can’t even imagine what the reaction was in 1983, although I know that Jose Feliciano almost ruined his career doing something similar at a baseball game in 1968.

What makes the Nike commercial so memorable? Let’s consider it within the context of Made To Stick, one of the more insightful commentaries on marketing of the past several years. In their book, Chip Heath and Dan Heath (brothers, one of whom is a Stanford Business School professor) outline the qualities of what makes a message (or commercial) sticky—what makes people remember a message and want to tell others about it, or in my case want to watch it over and over again.

The Heaths identify six characteristics that make a message sticky. Let’s examine the Nike commercial with these principles in mind:

  1. SIMPLICITY. The commercial’s message is simple enough: Gaye brought greatness in his own way to  honoring America, and the Redeem Team is going to do the same, in a way that will be memorable for ages. With style, and with a whole lot of coolness.
  2. UNEXPECTEDNESS. Needless to say, associating Marvin Gaye singing the national anthem with the Olympic basketball team was quite unexpected. Check.
  3. CONCRETENESS. Well, I’m not so sure what’s concrete about this commercial. Certainly it’s meant to embody Nike’s Just Do It, but without knowing that slogan already one would have a difficult time pulling that from the images. I’m going to rule that the commercial doesn’t capture this principle.
  4. CREDIBILITY. I believe that part of what Gaye brings to this commercial, believe it or not, is credibility to the USA basketball team. Gaye was a world-famous music icon who had recently had a hit with “Sexual Healing”, yet he chose to open an NBA game with a moving rendition of the national anthem that was as likely to hurt as help his career. Gaye took an American-born music genre and honored his country by applying his incredible talents in that genre to his national anthem. The American team had the ability to take an American-born game and apply their incredible talents in that game to honoring their country. The question pointed towards the USA basketball team as they entered the Beijing Olympics was whether they’d put their NBA stardom on the shelf during the Olympics and focus on representing America against the best of the rest of the world to the best of their ability. In today’s star-driven society, it’s easy to imagine a Kobe saying, “What’s the point? I’ve already achieved greatness in the greatest basketball league in the world.” Well, let’s consider what Marvin Gaye would say to that…
  5. EMOTIONS. Music has a way of touching people’s emotions unlike any other art form. Not only was Gaye’s performance masterful, when have you ever heard a national anthem transformed into a pop-art-form performance that preserved the spirit of the original anthem? There’s a reason that some of the most memorable (sticky) commercials have featured memorable music. Recent JC Penny commercials come to mind. This VW commercial from several years ago is said to have caused the significant posthumous revival of Nick Drake. And, of course, there’s Apple’s iPod commercials.
  6. STORIES. Well, there isn’t a strong narrative here. The message is more implied, as I’ve outlined above. I’m ruling that they didn’t meet this one as well.

So, that’s four out of the six Sticky principles achieved by this commercial. Not surprising that it stuck with me.

Given the nature of this blog, I’m forced to consider: was Marvin Gaye’s performance innovative? Given the requirement of economic value that many of my innovation colleagues require for something to be considered innovative, I suppose not. This Nike commercial, however, undoubtedly is.

Todd Mintz has a wonderful recount of his attendance at the NBA game in which Gaye performed. Below is the 60–second Nike commercial that I watched so many times on my Tivo (there’s 150 second version available on YouTube as well). And below that is film of the original Marvin Gaye performance. Enjoy.

Nike ad:

Original performance:

Lessons from the Olympics

Phelps2The Olympics are always inspiring with the amazing results achieved by the competing athletes. It’s easy to look at someone like Michael Phelps and decide that he provides no inspiration for the average person because he has been groomed for over a decade to excel at this event due to his extraordinary natural talent–and the reality is that yes he has.

What is easy to ignore in Michael’s life-story, however, is that he has worked extraordinarily hard to get to the position that he is in. Unbelievably extraordinarily hard. And so has every athlete at the Olympics. They’ve found what they are good at and have worked extraordinarily hard at doing their best at it. This is not only the secret of successful athletes in all sports but also the secret of successful entrepreneurs and technologists worldwide, and a model of success that can be accessed by anyone: find what you are good at and work extraordinarily hard at it. Don’t be lulled into the job model that has been created for those who work at something that merely defines something they can do. There is an unspoken job model that is not taught in school and never really discussed, but it is a model for those who find themselves in the unique position of being able to work at what they are best at:

If you resonate at your job, ring it as hard as humanly possible.

I am constantly amazed at talented people who have the ability to do great things in their professions…yet they don’t achieve greatness because they treat their job like the average job that they’ve been taught to expect: working nine-to-five (well, nine-to-six is the norm these days) and only do what they are asked to do.

Finding what you are good at and working as hard as you can at that is, frankly, a luxury that most people don’t have. Most people aren’t able to spend their salaried time doing what they do well—most people just work to make a living no matter what the job. Being paid to do what you do well is an opportunity that perhaps one can only truly appreciate at the end of one’s career—to be thankful for being paid to be best at exactly what one is in fact best at. The satisfaction of this unique situation is not about being paid for it, of course; it’s about being judged at what one does best and being given the opportunity to excel at what one does best. If one takes that opportunity, that is.

OlympicsThat opportunity, of course, defines the lives of Olympic athletes. And nothing defines them more than matching their talents to their training and working as hard as they can to be best as they can. In the spectacular finish of the American 400m freestyle relay, the finish of Jason Lezak was spectacular: his performance seemingly pre-destined for the history books, and an achievement celebrated worldwide. Yet what’s not seen nor appreciated by the Olympics viewers is the incredible—and I mean incredible beyond what most people can ever imagine—incredible work ethic that Lezak executed to put himself in the position to be able to make one of the most amazing comebacks ever.

Randy Pausch, the Carnegie Mellon professor who became an online sensation when he gave a Last Lecture after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer (and who passed away soon after), provided simple yet insightful advice about achievements and work ethic:

The brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not there to keep us out; the brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something. The brick walls are there to stop the people who don’t want it badly enough. They are there to stop the other people!

Work hard. Work harder than others. Work hardest if you are really good at it. Challenges simply exist for you to overcome then if you are up to it.

Most people complain about their jobs and the perceived difficulties and obstacles that they experience. This tip is for the few of you who want to be able to look back on your career with sanguine satisfaction rather than a melancholy attitude towards all that you simply put up with: the brick wall is there for a reason, so let your colleagues complain about it while you scale it, put it behind you, and face new challenges that few ever progress far enough to even come up against.