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Nike's clever social media strategy is paying off big time. Luckily, they have you to thank for all their recent shoe sales. Just don't expect a check anytime soon.

You'll never be LeBron James, and that's ok because if you buy enough Nike, you'll come as close as humanly possible.

That’s been the essence of Nike’s highly effective branding for as long as I can remember. Whether it began as a carefully calculated plan engineered to appeal to the most basic of human motivations or a strategy it fortuitously stumbled upon, the idea is simple enough: empower average people to feel like fully fledged athletes and win their loyalty forever. If you Just do it!, you too could be like Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods or Serena Williams, Nike tells us with every ad.

Through campaigns like “Find Your Greatness” and “Endless Possibilities”, Nike gives the impression that it has as much of a stake in your athletic performance as you do. Similar messaging has accordingly been the basis of its social media strategy, which, wisely, puts Instagram squarely at the center of an emotional, engagement-based approach that is unrivalled by any other brand, athletic or otherwise.

Over the past couple of years, and especially in the months that make up New Year’s Resolution Season, there’s been an uptick in the use of Instagram to organize so-called fitspo communities. Instagram-fitspo exists independently and cuts a wide swathe, but Nike seems to have a special hold on certain corners of it, especially elite running. Statistics are difficult to come by, but anecdotal evidence suggests the emergence of a Nike-fostered running club scene that is equal parts fitness and fashion. 

Wannabe brand ambassadors use their own social reach to disseminate the gospel of Nike, with appropriately framed photos of Flyknits and Dri-Fit gear matched with inspirational captions. If you’re not a Nike stan, Instagram seems to be saying, are you even an athlete?

It’s in part been driven by Nike’s use of Instagram; inspirational, community-building hashtags like #MakeItCount and #NeverNotRunning, which collectively are home to nearly 200,000 images, rally runners and wannabe runners to engage with both Nike and with their communities, making the photo-sharing network a starting point for the IRL translation of Nike’s URL messaging.

As important as fitness is to runners, elite and otherwise, it goes without saying that people who use Instagram are likely to also be concerned about their own image. The mix of fashion and function that is at Nike’s core is perfect for Instagram, where looking good while being successful is ideal. Presenting your best self, be it via the latest in cutting edge Nike innovation, the convenient Nike+ app that lets you share your progress, or by flaunting participation in cool running clubs, is par for the course. Much like its exclusivity-premised approach to sneakers—we've all seen the Jordan drop day fight videos, right?—Nike gives potential customers the sense that they too can attain both the cool and the athleticism of its celebrity endorsers. 

Among other things, Nike lords the possibility of brand ambassadorship and/or sponsorship over the masses. The implicit arrangement is this: post on-brand photos, gain a decent followership, and establish yourself as an elite enough athlete, and you could develop your own relationship with Nike that includes free and/or exclusive gear. Wannabe brand ambassadors use their own social reach to disseminate the gospel of Nike, with appropriately framed photos of Flyknits and Dri-Fit gear matched with inspirational captions. If you’re not a Nike stan, Instagram seems to be saying, are you even an athlete?  

Nike knows it has a devoted, unwavering customer base and uses that to its advantage, mobilizing Instagram users as word-of-mouth evangelists for its products and ethos under the guise of supporting them. In many ways, Nike's messaging relies on the prevailing of the average person, except it's not tied so much to the outcome but to the process. The months of training are as important as race day, and the likes and follows you get along the way are just as reinforcing as the personal records you break. The clever result is Nike leveraging its existing customers to further its Just-do-it style campaigns through non-traditional means and essentially for free.

Rather than linear, broadcast-based advertising and marketing, Nike has adapted to the changing media landscape and adopted a flexible tactic that works in its favor. Instagram recently launched an ad network that allows companies to place ads directly into potential customers' feeds, in a bid to finally begin cashing in on its many millions of users. But that platform is, frankly, flat and static; Nike’s more involved style, which relies on more than just product images, makes the social network’s offering seem woefully outdated. 

Nike’s unconventional social media strategy, which includes the sprawling Nike+ network, seems to be paying off. It’s a veritable giant, controlling half of the running market and 92 percent of the basketball shoe business. In 2013, it saw a growth of 16 percent, raking in global revenue to the tune of $24.1 billion. Nike is making a constant, consistent pitch to customers without them knowing they’re being pitched. We think we’re buying not because we’re beholden to consumerism, but because we’re feeding our inner athlete. What a beautiful lie.

Rawiya Kameir is a regular contributor to Complex, and has written elsewhere for The Toronto Standard, Thought Catalog, and The Daily Beast. She tweets often at @rawiya.

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