Six ways Nike built emotion into its brand

The global independent agency network Worldwide Partners held its latest global summit in Montreal this week, with two days of speakers covering a range of important topics and issues facing the ad industry.

Among them was Greg Hoffman, who spent two decades at Nike in different global marketing and advertising roles, including a stint as CMO. Since leaving, he’s written a book called Emotion By Design: Creative leadership lessons from a life at Nike.

Emotion is what separates good brands from great brands, he told the room of leaders and executives from 80 different independent agencies and 40 countries around the world. Good brands worry about how people will feel when they interact with them.

“But it’s the best brands that separate themselves, because they ask an additional question: how do we want people to feel about themselves, and their ability to achieve their aspirations and dreams when they engage with us? The brands that answer that transcend what they sell”

While most people believe brand building is art and science—the analytical and the creative—there is a sense that much of the industry has been off-balance of late, he said.

“Maybe we are more data-driven than ever, that we are waiting for the signals from the consumer and from the marketplace, as we should be. But maybe we have lost some of the art,” he said.

A lot of people claim they can deliver content “10 times faster” than before, he said.  “Notice how those statements never say better? But we need to be in the business of better. We don’t just create content, we create stories.”

Those stories should come from brands that are the most human and have emotion designed into them. He provided six different characteristics of those brands, based on his successful career helping build one of the greatest consumer brands of all time.

1: Diversity is the oxygen of innovation

A lot of places think of this as diversity of expertise, he said. “But I think what really has driven innovation alongside that is diverse experiences—life experiences that drive diverse perspectives… You bring that into the room and innovation happens.”

He drew a sporting parallel to Brazil’s national men’s soccer team, which has won the World Cup five times with a unique style often called “Ginga,” which translates to sway. Most soccer teams focus on uniformity and minimizing individuality. But Brazil has a tradition of encouraging its players’ creative eccentricities. “They are allowed to use spontaneity to create opportunity, and those opportunities usually end with a goal that you’ve never seen before.”

The same principle should be applied with brands, he said. “Make sure you don’t have to ask permission to use your imagination.”


“What happens when you have that level of diversity is you increase your ability to see farther and look deeper at a subject… that’s your collective empathy.”

He recounted a visit from legendary college basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski on the Nike campus. “Your advantage is your eyes, you see what others can’t see,” he told them.

That’s essential for marketing: for any great product or service design, and for any great story, you have to get past simple observations and see deeper.

One example from Nike was the development of the Nike Pro Hijab. Muslim high performance Muslim athletes had always struggled with traditional hijabs for a number of reasons, so Nike went deeper into that story and used “their collective empathy” to solve the problem.

“When you think of purpose-driven work, I think the default sometimes is storytelling,” he said. “But at the end of the day, first and foremost, any brand should be thinking about how they bring their inspiration and innovation to those that face barriers.”

3. Curiosity

“If empathy starts the process, curiosity super charges it,” he said. Not everyone has a curious mindset, but there are things that can done to instil curiosity in your organization, and it does not come from focusing only on your sector or category.

“I ran brand innovation teams, probably for 20 years at Nike. And I can tell you very rarely are our ideas sparked by what was happening within the world of sporting goods,” he said.

“You could argue that Nike Air is its greatest innovation that it’s delivered to the world… But it didn’t come from the world of sport. Nike Air came from a NASA engineer who was working on the astronaut helmets.”

4: Dare to be remembered

It’s hard to stand out today, when the competition for attention is so fierce,  he said. The things that stand out are rooted in true authentic insights, and creatively revealed to the world.

Once or twice a year, you have to remind your customers why you exist and what your purpose is. It’s something Hoffman asks any brand he works with now.

“Do they know where they’re trying to take people? Do they truly believe that the world is a better place because they exist in it? Do they believe people are better off because their products exist? Those are simple questions, but could be hard to answer.”

How you communicate it can change from campaign to campaign, so long as you clearly define the benefits or advantages you offer.

“There’s so much you can do to create, and surround, your products with emotion,” he said. “Even if it’s a five to eight second [Instagram] reel, if it’s still using creativity and revealing something that’s unique and distinctive from everybody else.”

5. Collaboration: creativity is a team sport

To a lot of people “creativity is a team sport,” sounds like a bad approach. “It sounds like you’ve got eight cooks in the kitchen trying to create a meal, and we know what happens. That’s not good.”

But because today’s consumer expectations are so high, brands must have strong relationships with all of their agencies, and all of those agencies working together. “I’ve never looked at agency relationships that I’ve had with AKQA, R/GA, or Wieden + Kennedy as transactional.  To me, it was always familial, a true partner.”

Hoffman recalled being given the role of overseeing all communications and branding for Nike.

“The problem is, I inherited a variety of different departments that have been working independently for years,” he said, returning to another soccer analogy. At about this time, Barcelona was dominating European football with a strategy of using short passes, known as Tiki Taka. They could pass the ball upwards of 60 times without any interruption. “And there’s only one way to do that. And that’s creative chemistry… That’s people being both selfless, confident and self aware,” he said.

Once he had everyone working together in that way, they were able to introduce more one-to-one consumer experiences, such as the House of Mamba in Shanghai. From there, “we passed the ball from Shanghai over to Manilla,” where they created the “Unlimited Running Track.”

“We did a variety of these different experiences, whether it was at an Olympics, Super Bowl, etc. But it was predicated on everyone sitting together, as well as everyone building on each other’s ideas.”

6. Be Courageous

“I know a lot of different brands and companies that you’re working with are trying to figure out what their purpose strategy is. And how do they pursue things that maybe go beyond what they sell, but in a way that’s authentic to who they are, in a way that doesn’t become a distraction?”

He recounted a lunch meeting with Colin Kaepernick in 2017. The former San Francisco 49ers quarterback had already famously began taking his knee during the national anthem to protest racial injustice.

“A big part of my role was to figure out how best we could use our platform and position to amplify the voice to fight racial injustice, but to do it in a way that was authentic to us that spoke through the lens of sport.”

Later, when Nike was preparing to release a special Kaepernick Air Force One, Hoffman knew they needed something special, rather than just another shoe that would be lost in a sea of other shoes.

So, famed photographer Platon was brought in to shoot portraits of Kaepernick. “This led to the ‘True to Seven’ campaign, where it went beyond just a product. Platon took seven portraits of Collin as only Platon can, because he has this ability to draw out the soul and personality through the eyes of the subject.”

Work like that requires empathy, risk-taking and curiosity. And when clients ask how they can connect to something bigger in the world, it’s up to their agencies to help them find that right way to do that.

“It’s different for everyone,” he said. “There’s no one right way for everyone, but there’s a right way for you.”


David Brown