Nike is a champion brand builder. Its advertising slogans—“Bo Knows,” “Just Do It,” “There Is No Finish Line”—have moved beyond advertising into popular expression. Its athletic footwear and clothing have become a piece of Americana. Its brand name is as well-known around the world as IBM and Coke.
So it may come as a surprise that Nike, the consummate marketer, came to understand the importance of marketing late in its life: after it hit the $1 billion revenue mark. After more than a decade of meteoric growth, Nike misjudged the aerobics market, outgrew its own capacity to manage, and made a disastrous move into casual shoes. All of those problems forced the company into a period of intense self-examination. Ultimately, says founder, chairman, and CEO Phil Knight, the company realized that the way forward was to expand its focus from the design and manufacture of the product, where Nike had always excelled, to the consumer and the brand.
Nike’s roots go back to a company called Blue Ribbon Sports, which Knight, a former runner at the University of Oregon, and Bill Bowerman, Knight’s former track coach, created in 1962. Blue Ribbon Sports started out distributing running shoes for a Japanese company, then shifted to designing its own shoes and outsourcing them from Asia. Blue Ribbon Sports’s performance-oriented product innovations and mastery of low-cost production translated into shoes athletes wanted to wear and could afford. Knight and Bowerman’s track connections got the shoes onto the feet of real runners. And then jogging emerged as a new national pastime.
By 1978, the year Blue Ribbon Sports changed its corporate name to Nike, Jon Anderson had won the Boston Marathon wearing Nike shoes, Jimmy Conners had won Wimbledon and the U.S. Open wearing Nike shoes, Henry Rono had set four track and field records in Nikes, and members of the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers basketball teams were wearing them. Sales and profits were doubling every year.
Then in the mid-1980s, Nike lost its footing, and the company was forced to make a subtle but important shift. Instead of putting the product on center stage, it put the consumer in the spotlight and the brand under a microscope—in short, it learned to be marketing oriented. Since then, Nike has resumed its domination of the athletic shoe industry. It commands 29% of the market, and sales for fiscal 1991 topped $3 billion.
Here Phil Knight explains how Nike discovered the importance of marketing and what difference that discovery has made. This interview was conducted at Nike, Inc.’s Beaverton, Oregon offices by HBR associate editor Geraldine E. Willigan.
HBR: Nike transformed the athletic shoe industry with technological innovations, but today many people know the company by its flashy ads and sports celebrities. Is Nike a technology company or a marketing company?
Phil Knight: I’d answer that question very differently today than I would have ten years ago. For years, we thought of ourselves as a production-oriented company, meaning we put all our emphasis on designing and manufacturing the product. But now we understand that the most important thing we do is market the product. We’ve come around to saying that Nike is a marketing-oriented company, and the product is our most important marketing tool. What I mean is that marketing knits the whole organization together. The design elements and functional characteristics of the product itself are just part of the overall marketing process.
We used to think that everything started in the lab. Now we realize that everything spins off the consumer. And while technology is still important, the consumer has to lead innovation. We have to innovate for a specific reason, and that reason comes from the market. Otherwise, we’ll end up making museum pieces.
What made you think the product was everything?
Our success. In the early days, anybody with a glue pot and a pair of scissors could get into the shoe business, so the way to stay ahead was through product innovation. We happened to be great at it. Bill Bowerman, my former track coach at the University of Oregon and cofounder of the company that became Nike, had always customized off-the-shelf shoes for his runners. Over the years, he and some other employees came up with lots of great ideas that we incorporated. One of Bowerman’s more legendary innovations is the Waffle outsole, which he discovered by pouring rubber into a waffle iron. The Waffle Trainer later became the best-selling training shoe in the United States.
We were also good at keeping our manufacturing costs down. The big, established players like Puma and Adidas were still manufacturing in high-wage European countries. But we knew that wages were lower in Asia, and we knew how to get around in that environment, so we funneled all our most promising managers there to supervise production.
Didn’t you do any marketing?
Not formally. We just tried to get our shoes on the feet of runners. And we were able to get a lot of great ones under contract—people like Steve Prefontaine and Alberto Salazar—because we spent a lot of time at track events and had relationships with the runners, but mostly because we were doing interesting things with our shoes. Naturally, we thought the world stopped and started in the lab and everything revolved around the product.
When did your thinking change?
When the formulas that got Nike up to $1 billion in sales—being good at innovation and production and being able to sign great athletes—stopped working and we faced a series of problems. For one thing, Reebok came out of nowhere to dominate the aerobics market, which we completely miscalculated. We made an aerobics shoe that was functionally superior to Reebok’s, but we missed the styling. Reebok’s shoe was sleek and attractive, while ours was sturdy and clunky. We also decided against using garment leather, as Reebok had done, because it wasn’t durable. By the time we developed a leather that was both strong and soft, Reebok had established a brand, won a huge chunk of sales, and gained the momentum to go right by us.
We were also having management problems at that time because we really hadn’t adjusted to being a big company. And on top of that, we made a disastrous move into casual shoes.
What was the problem with casual shoes?
Practically the same as what happened in aerobics, and at about the same time. We went into casual shoes in the early 1980s when we saw that the running shoe business, which was about one-third of our revenues at the time, was slowing down. We knew that a lot of people were buying our shoes and wearing them to the grocery store and for walking to and from work. Since we happened to be good at shoes, we thought we could be successful with casual shoes. But we got our brains beat out. We came out with a functional shoe we thought the world needed, but it was funny looking and the buying public didn’t want it.
By the mid-1980s, the financial signals were coming through loud and clear. Nike had been profitable throughout the 1970s. Then all of a sudden in fiscal year 1985, the company was in the red for two quarters. In fiscal 1987, sales dropped by $200 million and profits headed south again. We were forced to fire 280 people that year—our second layoff ever and a very painful one because it wasn’t just an adjustment and trimming of fat. We lost some very good people that year.
How did you know that marketing would solve the problems?
We reasoned it out. The problems forced us to take a hard look at what we were doing, what was going wrong, what we were good at, and where we wanted to go. When we did that, we came to see that focusing solely on the product was a great way for a brand to start, but it just wasn’t enough. We had to fill in the blanks. We had to learn to do well all the things involved in getting to the consumer, starting with understanding who the consumer is and what the brand represents.
Inspired Design: How Nike Puts Emotion in its Shoes by: Tinker Hatfield
Didn’t Nike understand the consumer right from the start?
In the early days, when we were just a running shoe company and almost all our employees were runners, we understood the consumer very well. There is no shoe school, so where do you recruit people for a company that develops and markets running shoes? The running track. It made sense, and it worked. We and the consumer were one and the same.
When we started making shoes for basketball, tennis, and football, we did essentially the same thing we had done in running. We got to know the players at the top of the game and did everything we could to understand what they needed, both from a technological and a design perspective. Our engineers and designers spent a lot of time talking to the athletes about what they needed both functionally and aesthetically.
It was effective—to a point. But we were missing something. Despite great products and great ad campaigns, sales just stayed flat.
Where did your understanding fall short?
We were missing an immense group. We understood our “core consumers,” the athletes who were performing at the highest level of the sport. We saw them as being at the top of a pyramid, with weekend jocks in the middle of the pyramid, and everybody else who wore athletic shoes at the bottom. Even though about 60% of our product is bought by people who don’t use it for the actual sport, everything we did was aimed at the top. We said, if we get the people at the top, we’ll get the others because they’ll know that the shoe can perform.
But that was an oversimplification. Sure, it’s important to get the top of the pyramid, but you’ve also got to speak to the people all the way down. Just take something simple like the color of the shoe. We used to say we don’t care what the color is. If a top player like Michael Jordan liked some kind of yellow and orange jobbie, that’s what we made—even if nobody else really wanted yellow and orange. One of our great racing shoes, the Sock Racer, failed for exactly that reason: we made it bright bumble-bee yellow, and it turned everybody off.
What’s different now?
Whether you’re talking about the core consumer or the person on the street, the principle is the same: you have to come up with what the consumer wants, and you need a vehicle to understand it. To understand the rest of the pyramid, we do a lot of work at the grass-roots level. We go to amateur sports events and spend time at gyms and tennis courts talking to people.
We make sure that the product is the same functionally whether it’s for Michael Jordan or Joe American Public. We don’t just say Michael Jordan is going to wear it so therefore Joe American Public is going to wear it. We have people who tell us what colors are going to be in for 1993, for instance, and we incorporate them.
Beyond that, we do some fairly typical kinds of market research, but lots of it—spending time in stores and watching what happens across the counter, getting reports from dealers, doing focus groups, tracking responses to our ads. We just sort of factor all that information into the computer between the ears and come up with conclusions.
To read more of this article, go to: Harvard Business Review
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