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At it’s core, the Nike brand has been about authenticity, particularly to the athletic enthusiast.  By staying tuned to what the core enthusiasts are into–music, slang, dress codes, athletes they admire, etc.–and fully understanding what it means to be immersed in that lifestyle, the brand has been able to grow its market share by giving us regular folks the impression that a bit of that magic dust will rub off on us.  Just buy some Nike apparel and you’ll at least feel like a world-class athlete.

It was thanks to a post by Ed Cotton that I learned about Wednesday’s profile of Nike CEO Mark Parker in the Wall Street Journal.  Ed pulled the following quote:

"I have a personal interest in popular culture and the influence of
culture on the consumer landscape," says Mr. Parker, rattling off the
worlds he turns to for inspiration: interior design, cuisine, art and
music among them.

Yes, I’d say that it is highly unusual for a CEO to be interested/invested in pop culture.  However, this is  crucial to professional success at Nike.  In their book, Chasing Cool: Standing Out In Today’s Cluttered Marketplace, Noah Kerner and Gene Pressman quote former Nike CMO Scott Bedbury on this very point:

"If you were the head of Nike Basketball, you damn well better know what’s going on in the minds of young basketball players–the music they listen to, their vernacular, how they define success, what they fear, what they dream.  The bulk of it is just about getting out there and wandering around.  And anybody in the marketing group at Nike was penalized, if not put into early retirement, if they didn’t get out there, if they weren’t continually curious."

So here’s a corporate culture that breeds and rewards continous curiousity.  So its outreach to  influential influencers is not, as I see it, simply coolhunting, as the Journal article tries to suggest.  Rather, these choices made with far more insight into pop culture than most brands will ever have.  Nike is reaching out to people who will matter to its core.  The ripple effects that reach the mainstream are enough to keep it elevated above just another apparel brand.  At the end of the day, what the company has done is that it has made its employees–and here’s my acknowledgement of Grant McCracken’s work on my own thinking–"listening posts" that help it interpret changes in the cultural landscape.

Now, speaking of both Grant and Nike, you’ll want to check out this post.  He talks about his experience with the Nike+ running shoes that lets upload your jogging mileage to the Web.  Suddenly, you’re no longer involved in a solitary activity.  The cool insight here is how the company leveraged technology to tap into its consumers’ competitive spirit.

Too often companies feel like they have all the answers within their walls.  But that only makes for muddling along in the middle of the market.  Just in case you haven’t figured it out, there’s no money in the middle anymore.

Posted by Rob Fields

  • Great brands make you feel great just by patronizing them. And I agree that Nike is one such brand. Even with years of experience in the industry, there’s always something fresh about their campaigns and their ideas. More and more people should really adapt this “continually curious” way of thinking.