Cracking Your Brand’s Genetic Code
By Scott Bedbury
November 30th, 1987
On my first day at Nike, I found myself sitting in the private conference room of the company’s CEO founder, Phil Knight, in the old Murray 1 Building in Beaverton, Oregon. This was three
Cracking Your Brand’s Genetic Code
years before Nike built its impressive corporate campus- an enormous hundred-acre shrine to sports and fitness- and its headquarters back then was spread across six nondescript leased office complexes in Portland and Beaverton.
In those days, Nike was running a distant third in the sneaker world, behind the German juggernaut Adidas and its chief domestic rival, Reebok. Nothing in the appearance of Nike’s corporate offices suggested it would one day become a global powerhouse, much less an international protagonist for sports and fitness in the highest sense. Apart from the occasional poster of an athlete or a shoe framed on a well, any of the headquarters buildings could easily have been mistaken for an insurance office, from the inside as well as put. Phil Knight’s office windows looked out at a strip mall, anchored by a Kmart.
In my first few hours as Nike’s director of corporate advertising, I’d done a little snooping around, hoping to find among the papers and records left behind by my predecessors some clues to my future existence. Rob Strasser, Peter Moore, and Cindy Hale, the threesome that had kept a tight rein on Nike design and marketing matters for more than a decade, had left in their wake an advertising plan that consisted of little more than three pages of budget numbers, grouped under two seasonal product launches. Such informality was typical of Nike in those days. Insofar as I had been able to ascertain, the marketing department’s traditions, like those of the Bedouin, were entirely oral.
In the absence of any formal or written direction, I decided to seek out Phil Knight for some verbal guidance. Unfortunately for me, Knight was not one to tell any of his staff- especially a key employee, and a new hire to boot- exactly what to do. He spent a good deal of time recruiting talented people who, he hoped against hope, would eventually grasp the core values of Nike, and then he very deliberately got the hell out of their way. As some of those new hires would learn to their distress, Phil Knight would only reemerge- and loom large in your presence- if you really screwed up.
“What would be the single most important thing I can do for you right now”? I asked, after taking a seat in the sparsely furnished conference room adjoining his office. Hardly anyone ever entered his actual office. That was the inner sanctum. Knight pondered my request for a moment and, with a strange combination of grimace and shrug, effectively parried my opening thrust.
“Just do great things,” he replied, rubbing one hand across his grizzled jaw.
“But what if I end up making mistakes”? I wondered out loud, feeling not much more enlightened by this broad exhortation that I had by the so- called marketing plan.
“Oh, don’t worry about that,” Knight replied cheerfully.
By this point, I felt the unnerving joy of being granted incredible latitude – combined with fear of not knowing where I might find the potholes that I knew would be in the road going forward. Then Knight turned deadly serious as he leaned forward and fixed me with a disconcertingly direct gaze.
“Just don’t make the same mistake twice,” he said.
On the short dive back to my own quarters in Nimbus A- a fitting name for a building that housed design, the product lab, and advertising- I began to suspect strongly that everything that Knight did or said in the presence of key employees was carefully considered. This didn’t mean, of course, that he necessarily thought long, hard, or abstractly about his remarks. In fact, that was precisely the point: he deliberately did not think long, hard, or abstractly about them. It was simply that everything he said was judiciously weighed from an intuitive point of view. His opinions were genuine, not the sort of pronouncements that fill the air around so many CEOs who assume the position of being the ultimate authority on everything. If Knight preferred to give me general direction rather than a specific job description, I was going to have to live with it. Or find a new place of employment.
When I returned to my office I took the first step in the following the program I’d been given and began ruminating on the gamut of mistakes that I believed Nike had made in the past few years, some of them probably committed at least twice. Nike’s greatest recent error, in my humble opinion, has been to first ignore and then deny the growing strength of a new competitor: Reebok.
By the late eighties, even those in Beaverton who were inclined to stick their heads in the san and ignore the most unpleasant realities of life were finding it harder and harder to dismiss the depth and breadth of the threat posed by a soft leather show called the Freestyle. Reebok’s Freestyle was hardly what hard-core “Nike guys”- there were very few women in any position of power in Beaverton in those days- would have respectfully referred to as “high-performance sports gears.” That the Freestyle lacked the firm torsion control and deep, durable cushioning of Nike Air scarcely mattered, however, to the millions of men and women who had enthusiastically purchased it in the early eighties. Some proudly wore theirs on the street, while still others wore theirs to the gym, to practice a strange new fitness pursuit called “aerobics”.
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Reprinted with Permisson