Expanding the Box

by | Jun 28, 2022 | Branding

How Nike elbowed its way to relevancy in the CrossFit space

Thinking outside the box is an overused catchphrase. The entire concept got so popular nobody seems to even know what it means anymore. Worst! More often than not, we fail at even applying the old cliche.

There might actually be a reason for that. Hint: you shouldn’t go outside the box at all.

At SHFT, we typically don’t use giants to discuss concepts and strategies. But, there’s no denying the brilliance behind what they do. As long as we can all learn and apply some of that stuff to our own situation.

In this essay, we’ll reframe “thinking outside the box” when looking to position yourself. Using Nike and the CrossFit space as a case study, we’ll take a closer look at why it’s actually more about expanding the box than going outside of it.

Whether you’re a freelance copywriter or a small B2B company, you’ll hopefully see that this time, there are actual things you can learn from Nike’s strategy.


Nike Invades CrossFit

CrossFit took the world by storm around 2007-2008. Reebok –somewhat of a dying brand back then, saw an amazing opportunity to regain relevancy and seized it. They became the official partner of the CrossFit Games.

As the sport gained in popularity, Reebok came out with a whole range of new products, workout clothes and gear specifically tailored to the demands of the discipline.

More specifically, a new concept was born: the CrossFit shoe –a versatile shoe able to withstand the harsh conditions of numerous and varied types of workouts (from running and rope climbing to powerlifting and box jumping).

Reebok coined their model the Nano. We’re now in the twelfth version of their famous and industry-leading model: the X2 –yeah, cause they couldn’t just name it 12, amirite?

Of course, it didn’t take too long for a heavy competitor to come in and challenge Reebok’s supremacy. You didn’t think Nike wasn’t going to come in and claim some of that juicy pie for themselves, did you?

All it took was a whole lot of research, and a whole lot of focus to become relevant in a space already dominated by one major player.

Looking at the way Nike approached this new space, we’re actually able to draw parallels between how a giant came to relevance in an already-occupied space, and how smaller brands outmaneuver their bigger, scarier competition.

What Nike did NOT do – and what you should NOT do either

When approaching an existing market, the last thing you want to do is come in and stand right across its biggest bully.

In other words, you don’t want to be competing on the same playing field as them, because you’ll lose. They’re too big, strong, supported, and most of the time, cheaper.

The wise thing to do then is to come in from a different angle. And Nike did just that.

Let’s take a closer look.

“Let’s challenge Reebok head on” would have been one of the dumbest suggestions in the room at their brainstorming sessions. Why? Because Reebok was already established as the go-to brand for Crossfitters around the globe. Not only thanks to their marketing presence, but also because of the superior alignment of their products with the demands of the sport.

Want to find the right positioning for you and your brand? Challenging a big meanie by competing on the exact same features, wanting to be the best at everything is probably the smartest way to fail.

That goes for stating you’re the best at this and that too, by the way. Because being the best is all about perception –more specifically, your customer’s perception. And as we all know, influencing people’s perception can get tricky.

At best, perception is pliable by a nuanced context. At worst, it’s an immovable constant, almost impossible to reshape into the form you want it to take.

Thankfully, there’s a path to come into an occupied space and instantly stake a legitimate claim to relevance. And it all comes from focus and differentiation.

What Nike did do – and what you should do, too

There are multiple ways to invade a new market, or make some room for yourself in an existing one.

Now, we don’t claim to know exactly how Nike strategized its entry into the CrossFit space. But, we know they started small, with one single item: a shoe.

In other terms, they applied a good ol’ divide-and-conquer strategy.

Their first step was to evaluate the market to build a legitimate case to even be there in the first place. Some competitive and customer research informed them on two things CrossFit athletes were concerned with:

  1. The toe box on the Nano was too wide.
  2. The sole might be too soft.

Those two elements made it harder for athletes to sustain a high pace during the workouts built around running. That information happened to be the perfect insight for their best legitimate opportunity to invade the expanding CrossFit space.

And it guided them to their second step: defining their uniqueness in that space.

They achieved this by coming up with one differentiated-yet-highly-relevant item: the Nike Metcon shoe.

While Reebok’s shoe was versatile and scored high on most criteria, Nike’s would be hyper focused on being the best in one single area of CrossFit: running.

Now that’s not to say the Metcon rated poorly in other categories. In fact, its more robust sole and heel not only made it the best running CrossFit shoe, it made it a great one for powerlifting as well.

Creating a product that’d be more highly rated on such relevant criteria provided Nike with the legitimacy to go to war with Reebok on their own turf. And It helped them prevail and be the chosen brand for a specific group of athletes (the ones in need of more support during their running and powerlifting workouts).

Armed with such confidence, Nike doubled-down on the Metcon being seen as the ultimate CrossFit show made for running. They heavily promoted the narrative that favored their benefits over Reebok’s, and were ultimately able to increase their market share.

Expanding the Box

Studying how Nike elbowed its way to relevance in the Crossfit shoe market can teach us a couple of things about how to conduct business as owners, founders, or sometimes freelancers.

Over the years, thinking outside the box has been praised as a critical skill to create differentiation in the marketplace. But there is a better and safer way to invade a growing market or make some space in an existing one.

Instead of thinking and jumping outside the box, the safer bet would be to take a good look at the box and expand it.

Look at your existing market as a whole. Examine all its competitors, options, benchmarks, and processes. Establish the status quo. Write and structure your findings in a matrix on a whiteboard, if you must.

Once you have the norm, find one relevant corner of that whiteboard that is discontent and grossly underserved. Research customers of your market to figure out what’s missing in their lives when interacting with your industry. Zero in on something they wish would exist but doesn’t.

Then, go all-in on that one thing people wish would help them get to their destination. Or at least would support them along the way.

By not going outside the box, you make it easier for you to respect ground rules laid down way before you even went into business. You simplify the path to creating a new perception and give yourself a clear path to creating a new category altogether.

Nike did exactly that. They looked at the existing options for people in the CrossFit space. They define what was missing. And went all-in on it. They expanded the box, by opening a new realm of possibilities and options in it.

They didn’t attack the giant. And they didn’t try to compete on every level either.

Instead, they…

…evaluated the market, searching for a spot where they could fit and quickly dominate.
…defined what would be their core uniqueness: the CrossFit shoe built for running.
…went all-in by creating a product specifically tailored to support that idea.
…double-downed and pushed the narrative highlighting their difference.
…grew from there and slowly started owning more space and shares.

Translation for, say, a Freelance Copywriter: don’t compete on price and audience size. And don’t try to cater to every possible need –copy for websites, landing pages, email newsletters, social media, etc.

Examine the norm. Look for ways to differentiate (those typically sit at the edge of the box). Pick a corner or edge where you can build credibility and relevance fast. And go all-in on it.

Only once you own your smallest viable space can you then think about becoming an all-around contender.

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