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Former CMO Nike: going against the flow leads to true innovation


The former CMO of Nike, Greg Hoffman, has written a book about his time working at the international clothing brand. In his book, he discusses the role creativity plays in the brand's growth. We have read and listened to myriad interviews with Hoffman and asked Tahir Idouri, creative director at Millford, to share his perspective on the stories told by the marketer/designer.

Hoffman discussed his career in the Intelligence Squared podcasts. "My biggest passions were sports and art. I was lucky that my parents never pushed me to choose between the two." He joined Nike in his twenties and worked at the company for more than thirty years. "I quickly learned that Nike is more than a pair of shoes or a shirt. 'Just do it' is a way of dealing with life, a mentality." In his book, he shares some excellent tips about how to build a brand with the help of marketing and design. "I believe top brands make consumers reflect on how they feel. Those are the brands that build personal relationships with their customers." What he's trying to say is that Nike makes people reflect on what steps they are taking to live their best lives." That explains the book's title; the more you can make people feel, the more credibility you earn. This, in turn, allows you to make a real difference in the world."

He believes the secret to Nike's success lies in the brand's embrace of the elements of "empathy" and "curiosity." You must genuinely be able to put yourself in your costumers' shoes. "For a brand, it is important not to do too much navel gazing and to draw inspiration from other worlds, such as entertainment and art. It is important to give yourself and your team homework; who are you going to meet and how can you use that knowledge? Managers should give their team the opportunity to discover what is happening in the world around them." At the age of 23, for example, he attended a lecture given by a Bigfoot hunter. "You cannot be an innovator if you rely too much on rational thought. There is so much you can achieve with data and segmentation, but does that leave any room for art in the marketing department?" He is a proponent of using emotion as a counterweight to rationality. "I took my team on a trip to Savile Row, where people have been making suits for decades. We were amazed by their dedication to helping people and by their craftsmanship. We began talking about how we might apply that to sneakers. Six months later, we introduced our Shoe Customisation Shop. More often than not, innovation is unplanned. You simply stumble upon it one day."

He says that Nike liked to work with daydreamers; introverts whose background differs somewhat from that of most other people on the work floor. The company also works with people with a different ethnic background, who form a minority compared to the rest of the team. "These people often don't feel part of the group. At the same time, they tend to focus more on innovation, because they don't feel entirely comfortable with the status quo. It is important to give these people a voice. I am also part of this group and I have always felt right at home at Nike." Tahir Idouri, creative director at Millford, loves how Hoffman created that free business culture at Nike. "It is important to foster a climate where people are free to come up with wonderful things without being encumbered by various restrictions." Idouri appreciates Nike's strong focus on creativity. It is like the company has said: We know we have to hit our targets, but let's forget about the numbers for a while. "You could be the devil's advocate and say that it's easy for him to talk, working at a major corporation, but you have to admit that the company does stimulate its people to look beyond the cold, hard figures. Major corporations often have myriad rules and regulations; there are rules for the people who work there, there is a certain marketing strategy that has to be followed to a T, etcetera. All those plans can make people a bit lazy, because the company practically runs itself at times. It is important not to be too restrictive. Stepping out of your comfort zone is a great way to come up with fresh ideas. You need people who can think outside the box."

Hoffman talks about his favourite Nike commercial, which sheds some light on his personality. "In it, Michael Jordan talks about all the shots he has missed over the course of his career; 9,000 in all. We all like to bask in our successes, but success only comes after failure. I believe the same is true for brands: those that take risks, are not afraid to stumble once in a while and always get back up to take another shot are the ones that truly achieve greatness."
Another good story is about the creation of the famous Nike swoosh as the company's logo. Andre Agassi was playing at Wimbledon - where commercial advertisements are not allowed - with just a swoosh on his cap. One of the top dogs at Nike saw him play and shortly thereafter, it was decided to abandon the written brand name. "I wrote a Swoosh Bible, a silver-coloured book for internal use about the importance of the swoosh. Everyone got a copy, not just our marketing people. It is important for every member of an organisation to understand the role a brand plays." Idouri likes this story: "It is a very good one. It is also about leaving something to your customers. In the Netherlands, we have a tendency to record and regulate everything, but it is not always necessary to fill in all the blanks. I see a lot of big companies do that; they want to prescribe everything. It is better to give your customers a bit of influence as well, instead of trying to impose your ideas on them."

Hoffman also talks about Collin Kaepernick and how the young Hoffman would have liked to see a similar role model, where one player speaks up on behalf of other players of colour. "I believe diversity is like oxygen to creativity. In late July of 2017, I sat down with Collin at Nike. He did not have a team to play in. I grew up in a mixed marriage and, like Collin, I was adopted by white parents and went to school with mostly white students. To Collin and myself, it made sense not to keep our work and private lives separate and to share our story with the world. That ultimately led to the crazy dreams campaign. I always believed in athletes using their platform to tell their story." He explains why it is so important for a company to know exactly what it stands for. These core beliefs should fit on a single sheet of paper. "Whenever something happens in the world, you can ask yourself if there is anything you can do as a brand. If it doesn't coincide with what you stand for, it is best to keep out of the spotlight. In this case, however, there was zero doubt." Idouri thinks Hoffman had a keen sense of "not belonging." "It lights a fire under you. That passion and drive can get snowed under when there is too much focus on KPIs. We try so hard to manage everything, which makes it easy to lose the human touch. That is what he means by 'empathy.'" 

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