Nike Basketball Shoe “Breaks” in Primetime

Will an “Isolated Occurrence” Become a Full-Blown Crisis for This Iconic Brand?

2/21/19 – – Every manufacturer understands that some small percentage of its products may fail to perform as designed in use. Despite the best quality control and improvement initiatives, something can and will go wrong. That’s why companies buy insurance, offer generous return policies and take consumer complaints very seriously.

Most product failures don’t make news. But last night people noticed when a shoe worn by Duke University’s Zion Williamson — the nation’s best college basketball player, playing for the number-one ranked team in the country — fell apart during the first minute of ESPN’s primetime broadcast of the Duke vs. North Carolina game, arguably the most heated rivalry in all of sport. Attention to the mishap was heightened when the injured super star limped into the locker room, unable to return, and former President Obama, who was among many courtside celebrity spectators, was seen on-camera exclaiming, “His shoe broke.”

Within minutes, online chatter identified the shoe as a Nike PG 2.5. Slow-motion closeup replays from multiple angles of Zion’s foot pushing through the sneaker’s rubber sole as he fell awkwardly to the hardwood ran at the start of every commercial break and went viral across the internet. Speculation exploded. Was Zion’s multi-million-dollar professional career in jeopardy because of a defective shoe? Have other athletes wearing the Nike PG 2.5 experienced quality problems? How worried should they be about injury?

This certainly qualifies as a marketing nightmare, even for a respected brand like Nike. The company invests hundreds of millions of dollars annually sponsoring high-profile teams that wear Nike equipment, proudly displaying the iconic swoosh logo on their uniforms. For a product to fail on such a big stage is extraordinary.

But does it qualify as a crisis?

In Chapter 5 of The Crisis Preparedness Quotient – Measuring Your Readiness to Weather a Reputational Storm (“Culpability and Crises: Proclaiming Villains and Victims”), we spotlight the three questions reporters ask to determine the tone of their coverage when assessing the seriousness of a special situation like Nike is experiencing:

What did you know?

When did you know it?

What did you do about it?

To get on top of things as the incident reverberated across the internet, Nike quickly issued this statement:

“We are obviously concerned and want to wish Zion a speedy recovery. The quality and performance of our products are of utmost importance. While this is an isolated occurrence, we are working to identify the issue.”

The company appropriately expresses concern for Zion, reaffirms its commitment to product quality, and assures us they are “working to identify the issue.” (My guess is that Zion’s now famous broken shoe is being tested as we speak in a Nike laboratory.) As I said earlier, all manufactured products can fail or malfunction. Reporters accept that. But when serious quality problems come to light, in addition to wanting to know what you are going to do about it now, they want to know how widespread it has been, how long has it been going on, and what, if anything, you have been doing to address the issue?

So, what reporters are most interested in, I suspect, is this important phrase in Nike’s statement: “While it is an isolated occurrence . . .”

Whether or not this primetime product failure becomes a full-blown crisis will be determined in large part by the accuracy (truthfulness) of that characterization. Is it fair to call this an isolated occurrence? Nike has challenged the media to find out. If images of defective Nike PG 2.5s start appearing on the internet or other college or professional players share their negative experiences with the shoe, a brand challenge will become a brand crisis.

Even though I’m a loyal Syracuse University graduate (the Duke Blue Devils play my beloved Orange this Saturday night in the Carrier Dome) I join Nike in wishing Zion Williamson a full and speedy recovery. And I wish Nike success in answering the media’s questions: what did you know, when did you know it and what did you do about it? With good answers, there’s plenty of brand equity stored up to get them through this reputational storm.

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