In His Nike Work, Dan Wieden Is the Prototypical CCO

An Excerpt from Grant McCracken's Forthcoming 'Chief Culture Officer'

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Grant McCracken
Grant McCracken
I wrote my forthcoming book, "Chief Culture Officer: How to Create a Living, Breathing Corporation," to help corporations be better at working with, creating and participating in culture, because this much is clear: The corporation is good at many things, but culture has never been one of them. More's the pity. Always and increasingly, culture is a source of opportunity and constant disruption. The time has come to put this right. What better way than to open the C-suite to a senior manager who contents with culture full-time? The question: Where to find people who've served the corporation as unofficial, prototypical CCOs? It wasn't long before I stumbled upon Dan Wieden's magnificent work for Nike, highlighted in the edited book excerpt that follows.

By the mid-1980s, the running boom was giving way to a fitness craze and Phil Knight, founder of Nike, wanted his company to take part. Knight didn't much believe in advertising, but competition with Reebok was fierce, and he had begun to work with a small shop in Portland, Ore., called Wieden & Kennedy. Dan Wieden, Portland native and second-generation ad man, proved an essential asset.

Dan Wieden
Dan Wieden
It was Wieden who coined the slogan "Just do it" in 1988. Most slogans are about the brand ("Coke is it"). They may make a promise ("You can do it. We can help"), or they evoke a mood ("Bilbao, now more than ever."). Rarely do they tell the consumer what to do. But "Just do it" was imperative, impatient, presumptuous, and, well, a little rude. This was not the sort of thing consumers had heard before.

Acting as unofficial CCO, Dan Wieden had looked into the life of the consumer. He saw someone struggling to get off the couch and into fitness, someone suffering aches and pains, someone tempted by excuses. In "Just do it," Wieden found the three words that allowed Nike to intervene. Acting as unofficial CCO, Wieden had found a way to help Nike ride the fitness wave.

Wieden is the author of a 2001 Nike ad called "Tag." This TV spot features a young man on his way to work in a big city. It could be Chicago, New York or San Francisco. (It is, in fact, Toronto.) All of a sudden, he feels a hand on his shoulder. He's been tagged. He's it. Pedestrians scatter. Plazas empty. The chase is on. He almost tags one woman as she enters a bus. He almost tags another but she dives into her car. He almost tags a policeman as he pulls away in his cruiser. Our hero is a wildebeest, charging wildly, hoping for contact. Finally he comes upon a hapless guy in the subway, the only man in the city who doesn't know the game is on. Tag. Now he's it. Frame for frame, "Tag" is probably the most exciting ad ever made. It had the drama of the chase scene in "The French Connection." It won the admiration of the industry and a Cannes Lion Grand Prix.

But it's an odd ad. It takes 20 seconds before we understand what's happening. For a while it's just people running around on a plaza, forcing us to puzzle things out on our own. Advertising is famous for its simplicity, repetition and sometimes sheer stupidity ("But wait! There's more! Act now!"). In the world of advertising, 20 seconds is a client-provoking eternity. Wieden dared to tinker with the rules.

For all that, "Tag" is a straightforward piece of advertising. It is playful. It makes Nike the friend of spontaneity and urban athleticism. It brings the viewer off the couch to the edge of his seat, the very point of the Nike proposition. Every commuter would love to see the tedium of travel exploded this way. Certainly, every athlete (and Nike is filled with athletes) would love to see the city as a competitive space.

And there were deeper resonances. Since the 1960s and the era of the be-in, the city was being proposed as a platform for spontaneous expressive events. Street theater was now agitating public life and the pages of Time and Life. In the TV show "Mork & Mindy," Robin Williams brought the idea of improv to American living rooms. Americans were giving up the Northern European idea that public behavior ought to be guarded and expressionless. They were beginning to play with the notion that the world could hand you a proposition and you would "go with it." (I remember being thrown a "ball" by a passing mime in Hyde Park in the late 1970s. I threw "it" back.) Some of the raves that became so popular in the 1990s had precisely this quality: perfect strangers assembling "just in time" in abandoned warehouses. Somehow culture by accident was more interesting than culture that was planned.

"Tag" also resonated with ideas of order that were less theatrical and more scientific. The physicists sent to the desert during World War II to create the atomic bomb stayed on in Santa Fe, N.M. They were interested in how complex order could issue from simple rules. The game of tag is based on a very simple rule, and, sure enough, it makes the disorder of city life give way to pattern.

The rise of the 'generous stranger'
"Tag" evoked a third trend we might call the "generous stranger." For many of us, first notice came in the form of a bumper sticker that read, "Practice random kindness and senseless acts of beauty," a phrase so influential, it now has its own Wikipedia entry. Several thousand years of cultural practice and religious teaching had encouraged us to think of generosity as a personal gesture that passed between known parties. The "generous stranger" trend suggested it was better when things passed between perfect strangers.

With the help of digital technologies, "generous stranger" projects were (and are) suddenly everywhere. Bookcrossings has people conceal books somewhere in public for other strangers to find. In Geocaching, people search for caches using GPS coordinates posted online, and when they find the cache, they take one thing and leave another. In Phototagging, disposable cameras are left in a public place and the finder is asked to take one photo and pass the camera along. In Where's George? people register dollar bills, put them back in circulation, and ask finders to record the bill when it passes through their hands. It wasn't always clear why this was interesting. Somehow it just was.

Howard Rheingold took things a step forward with "Smart Mobs," encouraging people to meet together in public, to freeze for a moment in Grand Central Terminal, shop in slow motion at Walmart or act out letters in department-store windows. Rheingold's book appeared in 2002, which puts the book and the ad in production at roughly the same time. Both could hear our culture stirring.

Max Weber, the German sociologist, believed that as the Western world grew more rational, routinized and commercial, a disenchantment beset us. The personal, the traditional, the sentimental, the human scale, all of these were diminished. "Tag" and its companion trends seemed to offer a restoration. Apparently, even strangers can make the city more playful and less predictable. With "Tag," Wieden helped Nike re-enchant the world.

And that's all very well. But of course Nike is not a philanthropic organization. It sells footwear. And here "Tag" performed brilliantly. It helped Nike fight off competitors who believed that the game was merely about "sports performance." "Tag" gave Nike what Theodore Levitt, god of the Harvard Business School, called "meaningful distinction." As Levitt said in "The Marketing Imagination," "All else is derivative of that and only that."

Grant McCracken is the author of "Culture and Consumption," "Culture and Consumption II," "Plenitude," "The Long Interview," "Flock and Flow" and "Transformations." He has been the director of the Institute of Contemporary Culture at the Royal Ontario Museum, a senior lecturer at the Harvard Business School, a visiting scholar at the University of Cambridge and is now a research affiliate at C3 at MIT. He has also consulted widely in the corporate and has served on marketing advisory boards for IBM and the Boston Beer Company. This fall Basic Books will publish his latest book, "Chief Culture Officer."
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