The fallacy of ‘Ownability’ and Nike’s three magic words

A few days ago I found myself with colleagues and clients evaluating ideas when that question came up again. Come on, everyone. It’s been fun. But it’s time. Let’s all hold hands, take a deep, brave breath together, and agree we’re going to stop applying this false litmus test to our marcom ideas: “Is it ownable?”

I probably don’t have to tell you why. We’ve all heard the myriad and iconic examples of great ideas — including some considered among the greatest — that would not pass this test: Just Do It. Think Different. You’re in Good Hands. Is It In You? You know every one of these brands without me naming them. Of course, none of these ideas are ownable.

So the next time someone presents the question of ownability as a binary (or even meaningful) question, I want to encourage you to respond, “Do we have the guts to make it ownable?”

Whether or not an idea is ‘ownable’ is not determined by whether or not a competitive brand can say it. It’s determined by whether or not you’ve got the guts — the strength of will and the sustained discipline — to make it so.

First, let’s be real. Given the fragmentation of media, the utter inability to reach a critical mass of people without monumental spend, and the constant deluge of content pounding away like Niagara Falls drowning out the messages from moments before, the idea of owning an idea within a given cycle is virtually meaningless. You can’t own anything without sustained commitment.

Which brings me to my entreaty: stop trying to own an idea.

Ownership is good. It’s critical. But if you’re focusing on owning this quarter’s marketing message you’re missing the mark. The thing you want to own is your brand.

To own it you have to define it and then assert it — again and again and again. You don’t ideate your way to ownership, you assert your way. And you assert your brand by living it.

Look at Nike.

In 1988, Just Do It was not ownable. To Nike or anyone. Twenty-nine years later, no one can tear those three words away from them. Though they’ve been repeating that slogan ad nauseum for three decades, it’s Nike’s commitment to those other three words that have made the brand’s positioning and message so completely ownable. If you’ve read this far you probably know what those three words are. They’re the collection of words that, more than any others, have made Nike the brand that they are today. It’s their mantra: Authentic Athletic Performance.

It’s the commitment to this idea in everything that they do that has made the Nike proposition ownable. It permeates everything — not only their communications, but product development, even internal processes and infrastructure.

The New York Times recently ran a video story on Nike’s partnership with the N.B.A. and how it approached reimagining the league’s uniforms. What you won’t see is a lot of talk about consumer purchasing data or fashion trends. You won’t see a company driven by how it could translate an expensive sponsorship into a revenue-positive proposition. What you’ll see is a company living its brand. You’ll see Authentic Athletic Performance in action.

Now dip into your search engine of choice and look at some of the brand’s most iconic ads. Watch any of them — Jordan’s “Failure” spot, “Freestyle”, “Let Your Game Speak”, “My Better is Better” or any of the others that have moved viewers and built a brand. Watch them. And see one of the world’s greatest brands with the guts to assert ownership.