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Nike Ran a Marathon to Get a New Show on Nat Geo’s Schedule

TV’s latest innovation: A commercial-free program that contains a not-so-subtle commercial message.

When a documentary about three runners attempting to push their own boundaries to run a marathon in less than two hours airs on National Geographic Channel later this month, it will do so without any interruption from ads.  And yet, the film was commissioned by one of the world’s most innovative advertisers, which hopes the project will spur viewers to consider anew the products it sells.

Nike Inc., the marketer behind the landmark sales pitch “Just Do It,” will on September 20 debut “Breaking 2,” one-hour special chronicling three runners who use Nike products in their quest to shatter expectations of what the human body can achieve. One of the trio, 32-year-old Kenyan Eliud Kipchoge, comes within just 25 seconds of the elusive goal. And the company has made some of the footwear advances it allowed the athletes to use available to the wider public, says Nikki Neuburger, vice president of brand marketing, global running, at Nike. The documentary “has directly informed” some of the product innovations released to consumers in recent months, she said. In March, for example, Nike touted its ”Nike Zoom Vaporfly Elite with Nike ZoomX midsole,” which the runners wore during their efforts.

“If I could do one of these projects every year, I would,” says Neuberger. “I do think they are few and far between.”

A project of this scope has been relatively rare in the past, but more advertisers are embracing the idea of making their own pieces of entertainment. The hope is they can then distribute them in ways that don’t require consumers to sit through 30-second TV spots designed to interrupt the content to which they were originally attracted.  “We feel like this may be the first of many projects where brands can tell stories that don’t feel like ‘brand pieces,’” says Chris Uettwiller, CEO of Dirty Robber, the production studio that helped Nike on the project. “The information itself is not from a Nike ad. It’s not there to sell. It shows the story of these three incredible athletes trying to do something that seems almost not human. It just happens to be part of a Nike project.”

The movement has grown steadily over the years. BMW sparked the notion in 2001 and 2002 with “BMW Films,” a series of digital shorts featuring actor Clive Owen showing off various BMW vehicles. Red Bull in 2012 drew notice for a project in which skydiver Felix Baumgartner free-fell from the stratosphere above New Mexico back down to Earth, breaking the sound barrier in the process. Arby’s in 2014 released a commercial about how it prepared meat that was 13 hours in length – and showed it online and on a small TV station in Duluth, Minnesota.

In recent months, bigger advertisers have tested the concept. Apple in July released a three-minute-and-45 second short film on YouTube featuring actor Dwayne Johnson, while AT&T this month posted a 1 minute and 45-second ad touting its Taylor Swift video channel that featuring the pop musician.

All of the efforts are meant to be as entertaining as a TV program or film, rather than drawing attention away from one of those properties.

For National Geographic, the Nike documentary presented an opportunity to not only spotlight an intriguing human endeavor but also to weave the marketer into its cable network in seamless fashion. Nike had decided the project was so interesting that it could reach a wider audience with a media partners, and it began seeking pitches from various outlets. “We knew inherently they were going to be talking to folks who were proficient at covering sports,” said Brendan Ripp, executive vice president of sales and partnerships at National Geographic Partners, which is part of 21st Century Fox. “We thought it needed to be covered in a different way,” with some emphasis on behavior and science.

Ripp has years of experience putting so-called “branded content” alongside editorial product. He spent approximately 16 years at Time Inc., where one of the regular streams of revenue comes from “advertorials” placed in business-news magazines like Fortune or Money.

Indeed, National Geographic and Nike had to agree on certain editorial standards. “I wanted to make sure the story was as authentic as possible,” says Ripp. Nike and National Geographic agreed that the media company had final say over the final cut, Ripp said. Nike could scan storyboard and rough edits, said Neuberger. “We did hand over the key in terms of who was in the driver’s seat.”

National Geographic also made certain viewers understood from credits in the documentary’s earliest moments that Nike was involved. “We were incredibly honest with the consumer,” said Ripp. Nike is paying National Geographic a sponsorship fee as part of the agreement.

Nike isn’t likely to abandon other marketing efforts to focus solely on these sorts of projects, says Neuberger – and with good reason. The scope of the “Breaking 2” attempt required participation from many different parties at Nike. And the company has been working on it for months, including setting up a live-stream of the runners’ attempts to achieve new times.  Nike says 13.1 million people watched live across Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, with an additional 6.9 million catching up with the showcase at a later time.

National Geographic’s Ripp says he is open to discussing other partnerships that might use content to burnish advertiser projects. “This is going to be a trend going forward,” he says.

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