Crash and Burn

Nike Fuelband’s Fall From Grace

Nike’s assumption that people want to look and train like athletes while wearing its Fuelband turned out to be way off. Now the company might pull the wearable altogether.

Mike Ehrmann/Getty

Nike is reportedly dropping its multimillion-dollar investment in Fuelband, after unsuccessfully struggling to establish it as the coolest health device on the market. By 2014, Nike was estimated to have only 10% of the health tracker market, with Fitbit dominating the growing walk-your-way-to-health tech.

Nike’s inability to capture the market’s attention might lie in the shoe’s giant’s intended audience. The Fuelband blasted onto the scene in 2012 with all-star athletes touting their love of the wearable’s tracking capabilities. “Nike Makes Life A Sport,” went the opening headlines, and the commercials featured ripped, sweat-drenched athletes crushing stairs and flipping over bike rails. The product sold out in merely four days.

But, it never caught up to the competition.

Most Americans—even those who exercise—aren’t trying to be the next Lance Armstrong. They’re hoping to keep a New Year’s resolution and get the recommended 2.5 hours of activity a week. Fitbit, the unquestioned leader in fitness trackers, features a happy couple walking hand-in-hand down the street—a more closely aligned image with the average user.

The visuals on the Nike iPhone app, however, seem like they fell out of a CrossFit commercial, and rewards for highly active days are fiery badges.

As a journalist who often walks around with four or more devices strapped to my arms, I get a lot of unprompted anecdotes about how people use their trackers. Almost invariably, it’s about friendly competition with their spouse or partner to see who can meet light walking goals for the day.

“My wife and I purchased our [Fitbit] Flex bands early at Best Buy like so many others have already done,” said one of the featured reviews on the product’s Amazon page. “Purchased for my husband, but used it for myself until mine arrived. Really impressed with how it works tracks steps, stairs, and many other things,” said another.

The core of Nike’s tracker is “fuel points,” which supposedly measure how active someone is throughout the day, but this is a hardware delusion. The band estimates activity from movement, but it can’t accurately tell the difference between picking up a pencil or a barbell. Nor can it tell the difference between an easy downhill 2-mile jaunt and attempting the same path over San Francisco’s crazy hills.

Seriously athletes wear heart-rate monitors, not wristband trackers. Anyone who’s into martial arts, parkour, or CrossFit couldn’t do much with a Fuelband, because waving one’s hands around isn’t a great measure of effort. Fitbit, on the other hand, gained an advantage as being the Kleenex of step tracking. When you wanted to describe a product to a friend about tracking steps, you told them to get “something like a Fitbit.”

Nike assumed that Fuelband consumers were just like their celebrity athlete-obsessed shoe fans. But, when it comes to health, we don’t want to look in the mirror and think of Kobe Bryant. We’d rather look at our spouse and know we’re doing something to remain a little healthier for a little longer.