Nike Brings Brand Power to Paris Ahead of Olympics; Medalists Dawn Staley and Jordan Chiles Meet

PARIS – The Paris 2024 Olympics are still three months away, but Nike was early in the starting blocks, taking over the city’s Palais Brongniart with a three-day event and showcase.

Guests toured a museum-like maze of rooms dedicated to footwear and athletic gear along with displays highlighting its research and development programs: All were in support of the reveal of Nike’s new Air shoes.

More from WWD

The imposing exterior of the building — formerly a stock exchange — was dominated with 30-foot-tall statues of some of the brand’s signed athletes: soccer stars Kylian Mbappé and Alexia Putellas, basketball stars LeBron James and Victor Wembanyama, sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson, and fencer Beatrice Vio.

The event unveiled new Air shoes for soccer, basketball and running. Products on display include the Maxfly2 and Victory 2, which will be available at select retailers in May, the Pegasus 41 that will hit stores in June, and the G.T. Hustle and the Air Zoom Mercurial, which will be available in July.

Sha'Carri Richardson
Sha’Carri Richardson

Nike also previewed its new Pegasus Premium, set to debut in 2025.

It all culminated in an evening event where athletes from myriad disciplines took to the stage to model their kits and shoes, emerging from behind a dazzling mesh-like digital screen and hamming it up for maximum applause.

The only thing missing was the public, as the event was mounted for media and investors only.

The three-day event was billed as an “innovation summit.” The title seemed a pointed answer to equity analysts’ concerns that Nike has lost its forward momentum in recent quarters, a wariness that was solidified by its latest round of financial results.

It’s all meant to showcase Nike’s new “innovation supercycle,” said president consumer, product and brand Heidi O’Neill, directly answering those critics.

O’Neill stepped into the role last August with the express mission to help Nike get its groove back.

“This work that we knew needed to get done, we knew we had a chance to heat things up from an innovation and a product pipeline perspective. And we knew that the most important place for it to start was at the Olympics for our athletes,” she told WWD.

The Olympics have always been a “high energy” point for branding, O’Neill said, and this year Nike will have the opportunity to take an even more visible role.

The brand is working with the IOC on a new pilot program to incorporate brands who are not official sponsors of the game to have visibility during the Olympics, as the committee seeks to reform its long-standing rules to allow athletes to engage in personal marketing activities following legal challenges in Germany and the U.K.

Serena Williams
Serena Williams

“They’re allowing brands to do different things than in the past,” she said. “They’re looking at how they can create more opportunities for athletes to connect and engage with younger consumers this year.”

That will open the door to brands that sponsor specific teams or athletes — but are not official Olympic sponsors — to have more marketing activations during the games, and allow athletes to pull in important sponsorship dollars.

With the new pilot program, Nike is planning several additional activations during the games centered at the Pompidou Center modern art museum before and during the summer games, which will have consumer-oriented events including meet-and-greets with athletes.

“The Pompidou event will be about providing a more democratic experience for all consumers,” O’Neill said. “Maybe not everyone gets to go and experience the games, so we are bringing a little bit of that to consumers that can’t be there.”

Nike is heavily leaning into this marketing strategy on new brand positioning, with the slogan “Making athletes’ dreams come true.”

With younger, upstart brands such as On and Hoka hitting their stride, O’Neill said the competition from newer brands has helped her hone a new brand voice for Nike versus the previously scattered messaging.

“Frankly, we were having too many conversations that weren’t adding up. Think about it as hundreds of conversations, and we needed to step back.” Moving forward that messaging will be “very emotional, very sport- and very athlete-connected,” she said.

To do that, O’Neill changed 50 percent of her team and brought in additional female executives, including new chief marketing officer Nicole Hubbard Graham, who joined the team in November.

O’Neill flattened the organization that had been previously been heavily siloed, she said, now integrating the innovation team with apparel and footwear design teams, as well as removing the barriers between sports marketing and consumer marketing.

Category expansion and new products are in the pipeline. One example is a puffer jacket, inspired by an archive piece that will be updated to be a “functional fashion” garment, and the brand will debut a new athleisure concept.

Another item O’Neill teased is a “slide-meets-sensation” slip-on shoe, as well as a new healing boot that is designed for post-sport recovery. Recovery was a key word for O’Neill as a new market the brand will target, bordering on but not quite stepping into wellness territory.

Part of the the Nike Air Event 2024 launch.
Part of the the Nike Air Event 2024 launch.

These products will be designed to give the average consumer a glimpse into how the brand serves its elite athletes — particularly around the Olympics — that will then scale to a broader audience that will be served through a mix of its own direct-to-consumer and its retail partners as it seeks to better balance its mix of sales channels.

“We’re going to make it much simpler to understand the technology, the placement, the types of running and the running systems…between racing, training and recovery days so that it’s very easy for the consumer to understand and navigate,” added chief innovation officer John Hoke.

While Nike trumpets its focus on innovation, it is still heavily reliant on polyester for its apparel. Executives teased that may change in the future, and said the company is involved in research in next-gen materials “in the bio space,” said vice president apparel innovation Janett Nichol.

Some of the company’s latest research has been focused on fabrics, with a new textile that will launch in early 2025, O’Neill said. She would not divulge the fiber components of the new proprietary material, which will have its own brand name.

The company works with 5,000 athletes in person in its research labs each year, said vice president Nike Sport Research Lab Matthew Nurse, with 70 percent of those being women to address the specific body type needs, including variations in injury risk, performance, recovery challenges and hormonal fluctuations. “We haven’t always built products specifically for her,” he said of the female consumer. “Five or six years ago we made a concerted effort to over index more than 50 percent of our athletes [be female].”

Hoke added that Nike now has access to the world’s best athletes — as well as their data. Some of the research and development enlists testing oxygen levels while running, for example, and the brand takes 360-degree body scans of all the athletes, professional or otherwise, that cross the lab threshold. Nike uses the data for sizing and fit.

In labs, Nike employs a combination of AI, computational design, AR and VR, plus deep mind sciences in product design.

Outside the Nike Air Event 2024.
Outside the Nike Air Event 2024.

Nichol said that while the company is using AI, it is still using humans in the design process. “You absolutely need a human at the center of all of this, we are dealing with athletes who are human, and it’s humans that can unlock what athletes need. There’s also a massive amount of emotion that goes into the work that we do,” she said.

O’Neill added that the company had lost its way by venturing too far from its sports roots. “Sport can still carry us to new places. We had to get back to athlete.”

To that end Nike paraded some of its best and brightest at the Paris event.

Meeting of the Medalists

Three-time Olympic gold medalist Dawn Staley, fresh off her third NCAA championship coaching South Carolina’s Gamecocks to a win over Iowa last Sunday, and Olympic silver medalist gymnast Jordan Chiles were among the star athletes.

Staley and Chiles met for the first time posing for WWD’s cover shot.

“She’s magnetic,” Staley said of Chiles, who bounced in wearing an Off-White jersey and white miniskirt. Staley said she takes inspiration from other disciplines and learns from their “secret sauce.”

“I like to hear the story behind how she’s elevated herself to stay at the top of her game,” she said.

Staley is still basking in the big win — both for her team and for women’s basketball.

“It’s an awesome feat when you’re able to do that, and you can’t just give it one day and just move on,” she said of her win. “I’m gonna stay on this.” Staley sported a T-shirt bearing a photo of herself coaching on the court.

Sunday’s championship game saw a record-setting number of viewers tune in, partially thanks to Iowa superstar Caitlin Clark, who has ignited greater interest in women’s basketball. Ratings peaked at 24 million, and for the first time in history a women’s final drew a larger TV audience than the men’s final. The game was also the most-watched basketball game — either college or pro — since 2019.

“We’re at an all-time high, and it is not even comparing us with the men. I think women’s basketball is at a place where we’re going to continue to outdo ourselves. One, because I do think we’ve been held back for such a long time. I do think intentionally held back,” she said.

“But now we’re at a place where we’re in high demand. Everybody wants to attend a game, everybody wants to watch a game, everybody wants to see how some of our young talent that’s in our game develop and are marketed,” she said.

With more eyes on women’s sports, brands are eager to lend support. “Because once you want to invest in it, you’re more apt to get a return on your investment,” she said.

Chiles, who took a silver at the Tokyo Games, is focused on getting the gold this year.

Eliud Kipchoge
Eliud Kipchoge

“That silver medal was a gold medal in our eyes,” she said of the unique circumstances and challenges surrounding the Tokyo Games, which were held amid pandemic travel restrictions and resulted in spectator-less sports.

“At the end of the day, I’m always thinking about gold. I love gold, I wear gold jewelry all the time, so it’s in my brain 24/7,” she said. “Everybody’s thinking about the gold. We’re hungry for it.”

The Oregon native said both of her grandparents have worked for Nike, and she is named after the original Nike athlete — Michael Jordan.

“So it’s a full-circle moment,” she said.

Best of WWD