What can we learn from Nike?

Nike entranceEmployees cycle past Nike Lake and Ronaldo Field on cruiser bikes.  Executives emerge in jeans and trainers from buildings named after sports stars.  In many ways, Nike’s picturesque campus on the outskirts of Portland seems about as far from the European Commission’s headquarters in Brussels as you can imagine.  And yet, when it comes to digital media, companies like Nike face similar challenges to many other big organizations.

Fast Company magazine recently rated Nike as the “No. 1 Most Innovative Company of 2013”, thanks in particular to its Digital Sport programme.  This includes the FuelBand (an electronic bracelet that measures the amount of physical effort you make during the day), NikeFuel points (a metrics system for tracking your performance across different sports) and Nike Plus (an online platform for people to share their sporting exploits, as well as connecting with friends).

Following a trip to Portland State University, I had an opportunity to visit Nike earlier this week to find out more.  I spoke with Hannah Jones, Nike’s Vice President for Sustainable Business and Innovation, as well as some of her colleagues from Nike’s communication and business development divisions.  Hannah was based for many years in Brussels, where she played a key role in the promotion of corporate social responsibility through CSR Europe.

Look outside your organization for new ideas

How can a large company like Nike continue to develop fresh ideas in today’s competitive and rapidly changing environment?  Nike is experimenting with new approaches to innovation that move away from “locked up and proprietary” business development within the company, towards a more collaborative approach working with external partners.  One of the most potent symbols of this new form of collaboration is the Nike+ Accelerator project.

Nike has chosen ten companies to participate in an intensive three-month experience that may lead to the development of completely new services based on the Nike+ digital platform.    Nike provides the facilities, mentoring from top executives, as well as access to its APIs (Application Programme Interface).  The Accelerator project kicked off a month ago, and the ten selected companies are currently working hard at a downtown Portland location to refine business proposals in areas ranging from corporate wellness to gamification.

Nike’s CEO Mark Parker has been quoted as saying that one of his biggest fears is becoming a “big, slow, constipated, bureaucratic company that’s happy with its success”.  It certainly seems like a pretty bold step for a Fortune 500 company like Nike to acknowledge that the next big idea may well come from a small start-up, like the ones that are participating in the Accelerator project, rather than from within the company.

I was left wondering how we could apply this kind of incubator-style crowdsourcing approach to inject new thinking and dynamism into the world of policy-making.  If collaboration can help a company like Nike to develop innovative ideas more quickly, imagine the impact it could have in a government bureaucracy …!

I was interested to discover that Nike is involved in another exercise in collaboration called the Launch project, which has seen the company entering into an unusual partnership with NASA, USAID and the US Department of State.  These very different organizations have brought together their unique expertise to identify, accelerate and scale innovations in the area of global sustainability (energy, water, health, waste …).  Launch has developed a five-step process to promote collaboration and the development of innovative solutions:

  1. Big think (understanding the problem)
  2. Summit (collaborating to address complex challenges)
  3. Challenge statement (identifying innovations)
  4. Forum (convening collective genius)
  5. Accelerator (from conversations to action)

 The best advertising isn’t advertising

Hannah and I also spoke about the way that digital media are changing the relationship between institutions and individuals, whether it’s government and citizens or companies and their customers.  In the digital age, people expect organizations to be capable of listening and responding.

Nike’s Vice President for Digital Sport, Stefan Olander, has co-authored an excellent book on business in the digital age titled “Velocity”.  One of Stefan’s “Seven Laws of Velocity” is the rule that “the best advertising isn’t advertising”.  The book offers the following advice:

“Wondering which half of your ad spend is wasted?  Velocity says ‘Wrong question. Try again.’ Instead of interrupting people, serve them and make them feel something.”

Nike’s expansion from sportswear into consumer electronics and digital services is clearly based on that thinking.  Through its investments in digital media, Nike has found new ways to learn about customers’ habits and preferences, as well as building a relationship with them by involving them in an online community.

At a time when consumers are exposed to thousands of advertising messages every day, providing people with services they value is more likely to earn their attention and to boost brand loyalty.  Customer service seems to have become the new form of marketing.  I think that there is a lesson there too for those of us working in government communications ….

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Filed under Digital media, Fellowship Programme

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