Creative Leadership Lessons from a Lifetime at Nike
Greg Hoffman spent 27 years working at Nike, starting as a design intern and working his way up to chief marketing officer. His last role with the company was as Vice President of Global Brand Innovation. Now, Hoffman is the founder and director of a brand advisory group, Modern Arena. He also teaches brand development at the University of Oregon’s Lundquist College of Business.
Below, Greg shares 5 key insights from his new book, Emotion by Design: Creative leadership lessons from a life at Nike. Listen to the audio version – read by Greg himself – in the Next Big Idea app.
1. Never play it safe, play to win.
As Nike expanded into new markets, its risk-taking culture grew with it. Many established brands start off bold and experimental, but once they hit a certain peak, their mission shifts from achievement to protection. Risk taking suddenly becomes, well, too risky.
At Nike, we created a comprehensive campaign called ‘Risk Everything’, which launched during the FIFA World Cup in Brazil in 2014. The centerpiece of the campaign was an epic five-minute animated ad called ‘The Last Game”. In it, a mad scientist stands on stage as if giving a TED Talk, the screen behind him shows images of the greatest soccer players, and he says, “Even the greatest players of our time make mistakes. . They take too many risks! After all, they are only… human. After a pause, he adds: “But what if it weren’t the case?” From there, the scene turns into a mission for the world’s greatest footballers to use their creativity to save football from the hands of the evil scientist and his clone army. He programmed his clones to remove all risk-taking from football and replace it with ruthless efficiency and flawless decision-making. It was a risky movie considering it had the longest running time of any commercial in our history, but it eventually became part of the most-watched campaign in Nike’s history.
“History has shown that breakthroughs in innovation are rarely created with caution.”
The story is a metaphor for what can happen when a brand, leader, or team isn’t incentivized to take the kind of creative risks that lead to game-changing ideas. History has shown that breakthroughs in innovation are rarely created with caution. The challenge, whether a brand is old or new, is how to establish a culture of creative risk-taking and then protect it from the natural forces that try to overwhelm it. Should a team ask permission to use their imagination? Does an organization actively reward bold ideas that fall outside of the normal workload? If an unconventional idea doesn’t work, are creators encouraged to try again? Brands that encourage creative risk-taking within their organizations are brands that inspire their audience.
A corporate culture that doesn’t play it safe, and instead plays to win, creates space to dream and protects the time to do so. It is a culture that makes room for the two essential questions of innovation: What if? And why not?
2. Get out of yourself.
Leaving inspiration to chance, where it just hits you at random, is not a recipe for lasting success in the creative world. You have to go out and find it. While some may be born with a researcher mentality, others may learn to be more curious. Curiosity is a muscle that needs training.
Knowing this has allowed Nike to build a culture of creative curiosity. We let curiosity take us away from ourselves and our industry, in search of inspiration. We’ve even looked all the way into the world of space exploration, though that foray isn’t uncommon. Everything from memory foam to CAT scanners to wireless headsets and computer mice were inspired by innovations for the final frontier. Nike’s Nike Air technology was inspired by astronaut helmets designed by NASA. The blow-molded rubber technique used in helmets inspired Nike to create hollow shoe soles that could be filled with air, improving the shoe’s shock absorption. Nike Air innovation sparked a revolution in running shoes and beyond.
Curiosity is the rocket fuel for creativity. It reveals opportunities and motivates to seize those possibilities. Finding inspiration can be difficult, even if it is endless. Create a plan that allows it to flow naturally through you and into your work. Bring the outside world into yours through habits and rituals to empower you and your team to achieve better creative results.
3. Dare to be remembered.
We are committed to building a life for our brand, one story at a time. We want our stories to be thoughtful, funny and revealing something deeper in us and in the world. These stories must touch the audience in a way that compels them to feel something. In short, we want these to be stories to be remembered. To achieve this, you need to pull back the curtain on your brand to provide a clear view of its values and characteristics. If you allow your audience to see your personality, they will react to your humanity.
“Unlike a book, your brand story never ends.”
At Nike, we’ve often used our storytelling as a way to open up the world of sport to new audiences and expand the definition of athletic achievement to include everyone. This is the essence of Just Do It. In 2012, that idea and mission was brought to life through Nike’s “Find Your Greatness” campaign that ran during the London Summer Olympics. In the promotional film, it is revealed that there are 29 cities in the world named London. While the world’s greatest athletes competed in the Olympic Games in London, England, there were also athletes who excelled in London all over the world: from London, Jamaica, to London, India. Our message was that greatness is everywhere, for everyone. Greatness is in all of us.
Your brand is your story. This is how you express your product, your ideas and your services. Your story is made up of several elements and sub-plots, tangents and twists. Unlike a book, your brand story never ends. You always say it. And by expressing different human traits, your relatability becomes the ultimate invitation to your brand.
4. Don’t chase cool.
Every brand dreams of creating a product that becomes a cultural icon. Every brand wants its own Levi’s 501 or Ford Mustang. It’s one of the highest points a product can achieve, but if that’s the goal from the start, you’re likely to fail. Recognize instead that becoming “cool” means embracing authenticity, individuality, and a strong sense of self. There are cool trends, but you won’t create an icon by following a trend. You create an icon by departure a trend. If you’re chasing one instead of innovating, you’re probably trying to be something you’re not — and consumers expertly denounce inauthenticity. Brands don’t decide what becomes an icon; consumers do.
The Nike Air Force 1 sneaker has had many editions over the years, but it serves the same purpose as the very first Air Force 1 shoe that took Philadelphia 76ers Moses Malone to the NBA Championships in 1983 and led me to believe in my teens. years since I could be a professional basketball player. Today, the Nike Air Force 1 is not only the best-selling sneaker in the world, but it is also the most influential sneaker in culture. This shoe has that rare combination of accessibility and aspiration. Forty years later, she remains true to herself and understands that her authenticity is her cultural motto.
More often than not, brands struggle to stay relevant and part of the cultural conversation. Too many people cling to what others are doing, but the results are often inauthentic and lack emotional power. By chasing cool, you won’t catch it. Cultural icons are formed when a brand is authentic to its identity and purpose. Do that, and cool will come after you.
5. Leave a legacy, not a memory.
We often find the most impactful insights when we expand our field of vision to see what was previously out of sight. The essence of this is empathy: our willingness to listen to and understand those whose experiences differ from our own. Ideas through empathy can lead to transformational change. When we go beyond simple observations and assumptions, we are able to tap into our creative energies in ways that would otherwise remain hidden. As leaders, our role is to find those connections between what we sell and what the world needs. Using our talents and empathy to see the world others experience.
“Indifference is not an option if we want to move society forward.”
At the start of the 2016 NFL season, Colin Kaepernick took a stand against racial injustice and police brutality by taking a knee during the national anthem. A year later, he was without a football team to play for. As I sat next to him at a lunch meeting on the Nike Campus that summer, I was moved by both his unwavering commitment to the cause and our similar journeys. Like Colin, I am mixed race and adopted by white parents. I looked through that lens, as Nike’s chief marketing officer, that day and seeing Colin’s sacrifice, I felt the need to amplify his voice through stories that inspire action. A year later, to commemorate the 30th anniversary of Just Do It, we launched the “Dream Crazy” campaign, featuring Colin Kaepernick. The campaign celebrates athletes who “dream wild”, emphasizing that the dreams that fire our minds are worth sacrificing. The film was profound and inspiring for some, and polarizing for others. When we look back four years later, we know what was considered crazy was just the beginning.
Indifference is not an option if we want to advance society. Through our ideas and through our stories – told in pictures, films, architecture and products – we close the gap between disparities and an equitable future, ensuring that the ball bounces the same for everyone. When we tie that idea to our brand purpose, we create business growth, brand strength, and spark conversations that lead to collective action and positive change. We leave a legacy, not just a memory.
To listen to the audio read by author Greg Hoffman, download the Next Big Idea app today: