“What’s the headline?”

That’s the question a lead partner asked our consulting team during an internal strategy session back in the summer of 1997.

The client wanted to define a standard approach to growth and innovation, then implement it across the various business units within the company.

Our team had its task: to assist a global apparel manufacturer in developing a process to stay at the leading edge of innovation.
The project had two broad parts:

  • A design phase
  • An implementation phase

The Design Phase: Distinguishing “Good” Companies from “Great” Ones

This phase kicked off with an internal assessment to understand our client’s business and establish initial hypotheses. We asked:

  • How were leading companies able to consistently grow their business higher and faster, while others in the same industry lagged?
  • What were the major steps, activities, outputs, and requirements to achieve above-market growth?

Our job: define best practices that distinguish “good” companies from “great” companies, then utilize the information to design the process. (If this “good to great” approach sounds familiar, that is because it’s a fairly common way to benchmark best management practices.)

A Look at Best Practice Insights at Nike

We selected six companies across a range of industries, based on financial performance and company access.

The companies we chose:

  • First Union (now part of Wells Fargo)
  • Gillette (now part of P&G)
  • IBM
  • Nike
  • Gap
  • The Walt Disney Company

In exchange for participation, the companies received a copy of the study findings.

Once our list was solidified, we divided up the companies across the team and set out to gain best practice insight.

Upstream Marketing: Be at the Leading Edge of Innovation; Nike's Best PracticesNike was the first profile company our sub-team visited. At the time, Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls were in the middle of their second three consecutive world championship performance – just after their first three-peat win a couple of years earlier. With Jordan back in the game and at top form, Nike’s Air Jordan was generating huge revenues for the company.

While Nike had a significant athletic footwear business, there wasn’t much else. Although it may be hard to imagine now, in 1997, there was no Nike Golf, no Nike Soccer, and no Nike Tennis.

We did our research before the visit: we learned that one year earlier, in 1996, Nike had signed on a relatively unknown player – then 21-year-old Tiger Woods – to a $40 million, five-year contract. This was despite Nike’s limited presence in the golf category.

At the same time, Nike made clear its commitment to the world’s most popular sport – soccer – by signing the CBF—the Brazilian Football Confederation, making good on CEO Phil Knight’s belief that, “We will only truly understand football when we see the game through the eyes of Brazilians.”

Nike: Business Culture on Display

Looking at the business through the eyes of the consumer was a primary theme in assessing Nike.

It became even more apparent during our visit to Portland, Oregon.

When our team pulled the rental car into Nike’s headquarters, we wondered if we had made a wrong turn. We thought we were at a college campus.

We were expecting a collection of the usual block and glass corporate office buildings.

That’s not what we discovered.

The Nike grounds looked more like a college campus or sports complex, dotted with soccer fields, volleyball nets and running tracks.

Even though it was early morning, it felt like lunchtime or a Saturday afternoon: employees were using the fields – playing, working, and experiencing the category and brand.

Study a Business Through a Consumer’s Eye

Nike’s culture, deeply associated with athletes, sports, and design, was vividly on display that day.

Phil Knight’s mantra was evident: his team looks at the business through the consumers’ eyes. In fact, the Nike team became the consumer, gaining more in-depth insight while having fun!

We didn’t get to meet Phil Knight that day, but spent time with his lieutenants to understand Nike’s approach to marketing and innovation. The interviews helped define how Nike successfully innovates product after product, time after time.

Our full consulting team later met to compare notes and debrief research findings across best practice companies. While we had hoped to uncover a standard innovation process to replicate with our client team, that didn’t happen. The companies were too different, and no single process emerged.

A Common Set of Principles Across Best Practice Companies Emerged

We discovered something far more impactful:

We found a common set of principles across all best practice companies, which was far more impressive.

We used case evidence and systematic review to “structure the unstructured” in preparing findings. Initial recommendations were presented on innovation best practices, and approval was obtained from the client to employ them in the pilot phase.

Interested in applying our work to your business?

If you’d like to utilize the results of our research for your business, we are offering a free download of the first chapter of our book, Upstream Marketing, for a very limited time.

You can begin to explore the growth-drivers that are foundational to marketing and to growing your business exponentially. Download the first chapter here.