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Extreme Weather, Caused by Climate Change, Is Here. Can Nike Prepare You?

Following the approach we often see from companies marketing products before big storms, Nike focuses on climate change science in the promotion of its latest line of base-layer apparel. Is it a sign that more Americans are taking climate change seriously? Don’t get your hopes up.
(Photo: TonyV3112/Shutterstock)

(Photo: TonyV3112/Shutterstock)

We were just sitting down at our desks when a school bell rang. A teacher appeared at the back of the room. “Cell phones down! No distractions! We’re here to learn about science,” he chirped to the class, pushing his glasses back up on his nose as he made his way to the front of the room, walking past an easel covered in construction paper and handwritten notes on cumulus clouds and the water cycles. He grabbed a piece of chalk and scribbled his name on the board—Mr. Fidance—before making his way to an overhead projector. Jotting notes on sheets of transparency paper, he gave us a 20-minute lesson on climate change. Extreme weather is coming, he explained; in some places, it’s already a reality.

He added details on thermoregulation, how the body handles various conditions—and how professional football teams are affected by extreme weather.

If you calculate the National Football League’s strength of schedule based on weather, he showed us, the Green Bay Packers have the hardest schedule and the Seattle Seahawks have the easiest. Owing in part to climate change, more than two-thirds of NFL teams will play in extreme weather conditions this season, with temperatures higher than 80 degrees or lower than 32 degrees.

Mr. Fidance knew all about climate change, but he wasn’t actually a teacher. The elementary school “classroom” was a set, built in a warehouse in Manhattan, and this enthusiastic instructor was a stand-up comedian hired to teach a group of writers.

Was Nike’s focus on hard science an indication that more Americans are interested in it, thus meaning that appealing to them now requires proving that a company is rooted in science?

Welcome to the launch party for the latest in Nike’s line of base-layer apparel.

I'VE BEEN TO SEVERAL Nike events. They often involve science, but it generally pertains to material science and the technology used in the design process, like 3-D printers and high-speed cameras. Under Armour also takes this approach, introducing the apparel scientists who design various products. In a February 2013 campaign, UA even hinted that it is developing a futuristic base-layer that can be adjusted to match the temperature outside. (Researchers have even explained how climate change is disrupting the apparel industry.) But this was the first time I’ve seen climate change—and not just temperature—incorporated into the actual marketing strategy.

My mind started to wander as Mr. Fidance finished his talk. Was Nike’s focus on hard science an indication that more Americans are interested in it, thus meaning that appealing to them now requires proving that a company is rooted in science? It’s a reasonable assumption, says David Reibstein, a marketing professor at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania. Unfortunately for the science community, it’s not necessarily what’s driving the campaign.

“From what I’ve seen, Nike has been saying we’re trying to minimize the impact we as a company are having on climate change, so we’re trying to be very environmentally conscious,” Reibstein tells me. By now adding climate change into marketing, Reibstein says, Nike is showing that it “recognizes that this changes conditions for athletes, and [it’s] concerned about it.” They’ve noticed that their customers care about the environment, and they’re tapping into that. But as for being a sign that public interest in hard science is growing, he is doubtful.

“I’d like to believe that, but I’m not sure this is consumers being concerned about hard science,” Reibstein says. “It is what’s in the news and what is reflective of consumer popularism, and I think that really is what’s behind all of this.”

In tapping into the climate change conversation, according to Reibstein, Nike faces no downside. Despite 37 percent of Americans claiming they were “not too/not at all confident” about climate change in a March 2014 poll, these efforts will not send away the doubters. They’ll likely just think, “Oh, Nike is jumping on the bandwagon and giving airtime” to something that’s been in the news, he says. “That doesn’t mean they won’t buy Nike.”

AS THE CLIMATE SCIENCE talk wrapped up, Mr. Fidance pushed the blackboard aside, opening an entryway to a much more advanced scientific laboratory. Inside, we had the opportunity to test out a cold chamber and a 3-D body scanner. There was a 3-D sweating mannequin named Hal, and an impact-testing device specially designed by a Nike engineer who hails from NASA.

“While the ‘old school’ educational introduction was obviously intended for entertainment value, we wanted to root it in factual science,” says Brian Strong, a Nike director of communications. He adds that he can’t quantify consumer interest in climate change, but the introduction “helped set up the core theme of the experience: how we protect and prepare athletes for heat, cold, and the elements.”

It was also key to catching the consumer’s eye. The approach is similar to the marketing we might see when storms threaten an area. Stores encourage locals to buy generators and cases of water because a hurricane is coming; Nike encourages athletes to buy special apparel because climate change is causing more extreme weather.