Why Adidas was right to shun viral spoof ad 'Break Free'

A recent spoof Adidas ad was a viral success so why did the brand not embrace it? Rod Connors, co-founder at System1, investigates.

Walt Stack. Hod carrier. Alcatraz prisoner. Runner.

And the star – at the age of eighty – of Nike’s first "Just Do It" ad.

Just do it - Walt Stack - 1988

It’s an ad that is full of emotion, promise – and humour – telling the story of an eighty year old man who still runs 17 miles a day. An inspiration to all of us to lace up those shoes, "just do it" – and run!

During my time at Nike I lost count of the number of agencies who made the assumption that working on a sports brand is a free pass to producing great emotionally engaging "Walt" style creative.

"Sport is a world full of emotion, passion and fabulous human stories," they would shout, "the perfect creative platform. Give us a brief".

The majority of these agencies would fall at the first hurdle. Developing a consistently high level of creative work that doesn’t just engage emotionally, but will drive sales as a result - is much tougher than it seems, irrespective of category.

Take, for example, the latest (unofficial) Adidas running commercial - "Break Free" - produced by German film student Eugen Merher.

Adidas – Break Free by Eugen Merher

Delivered for an astonishing €3,500 (OK – with the help of his film school) – and with 11.5 million views on YouTube, "Break Free" is a highly emotive, beautifully directed and produced piece of work.

Merher’s central character is of a similar age to Walt Stack. And like Walt, running means everything to him.

But unlike Walt, Merher’s man is struggling to break free of his retirement home. Nurses and medical staff block his sprint and his spirit, at every turn.

At first glance - the ad could be viewed as emotional storytelling at its best.

A Walt Stack in the making, perhaps?

But Adidas has steadfastly refused to publicly embrace the ad. Maybe, because it is not in line with its strategy for the running category. Maybe because Adidas is nervous of "open sourcing" and losing creative control.

But here’s a thing.

Despite the groundswell of public opinion and interventions from celebs (Jared Leto, of all people) to get Adidas to support the ad, Adidas is right to abstain.

Jared Leto was a supporter of the ad on social media

The real question here is not whether "Break Free" is emotive – it’s whether the ad evokes positive emotion that will lead to profitable brand growth for the Adidas running brand.  

Many have assumed that it would. After all – 11.5 million views mean that people must feel something for this ad. And the more you feel, the more you buy. Right?

System1's sister market research agency BrainJuicer decided to put this assumption to the test in four markets around the world (USA, UK, France and – of course, Germany - the home of the three stripes).

At the heart of BrainJuicer’s System1 testing methodology is the ability to translate emotional response into a prediction of share growth and profitability.

Simply put, a brand that has made us feel good in its advertising makes it easier to choose that brand.

The results were highly conclusive. Adidas was right. The ad did not test that well in any of the test markets.

BrainJuicer’s Star rating system (one-star = weak through to five-star = highly positive emotional response) ranked "Break Free" in the four test markets as follows:

USA: 

Germany:

France:

UK:

The assumption was that it would test well because it seems emotive.

But in a similar vein to the John Lewis 2015 "Man On the Moon" Christmas ad (two-star and 0.5% annual value share growth of department stores, according to Mintel) vs 2014’s "Monty the Penguin" [five-star and 3% value growth, according to Mintel] – there is a huge difference in profitability, based on how well that attempted emotion lands with the audience.

John Lewis - Man on the moon
John Lewis - #MontyThePenguin

On its own and in its current form, "Break Free" was an above average ad but short of the four to five-star emotional resonance of the best Walt-like ads. But what about the 11.2 million YouTube views? We suspect, it’s the story of a young, struggling, student film maker creating an almost brilliant ad for one of the world’s largest, hippest brands that’s the real five-star hit, more than the ad itself.

We’re going to try and test this hypothesis but in the meantime, Adidas might do well to find a way to run with the "student story".

"Walt Stack" [], "Break Free" [] and "Man On The Moon" [], are all emotive stories about men of a similar age but the final execution makes us feel very different levels of emotion and produces very different levels of profitability.

Walt Stack and Nike got it right.

In choosing not to embrace "Break Free", Adidas got it right.

And as for Herr Merher – he probably got it right too.

After all, he wasn’t measuring success in sales.

Rod Connors, co-founder at System1,  has headed up marketing brand-side for Adidas and Nike.

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