Rethinking Every Rule of Reinvention

Four Strategies to Avoid at All Costs

By Published on .

Treat brands like Nike and Starbucks have transcended the commodity nature of their categories and become global brand leaders. Essential to both brands is a nontraditional view toward marketing, particularly in the area of consumer research, and a cultural commitment to risk taking and the inevitable mistakes that happen through continuous innovation.

For these brands reinvention is not a one-time event but an ongoing commitment. Here are four things to keep in mind as you consider ways to reinvent your brand.


Everyone knows the problem with lemmings, sheep and anything else that suggests blind trust in something or someone else. Just because some company is leading now doesn't make it the best or the smartest. So rather than look at another company, get to know your customers really, really well.

Nike went from a distant No. 3 in 1987 to No. 1 in a few short years by becoming incredibly focused on its end users. Where some companies might spend countless hours studying every facet of a competitor brand, the team at Nike preferred instead to develop deep and ongoing insights about its core customers as well as the next group of potential customers near the core. We immersed ourselves in contemporary culture, got out of Beaverton, Ore., as much as possible and never stopped being curious about what was happening out there in the real world. It was a career-limiting move to sit around and contemplate what Reebok might be up to, where Adidas' promotional spend was heading or how L.A. Gear's business model was working. We leaned hard on intuition, curiosity, passion and an unwavering focus on what mattered most: the end user.

If you can win the hearts and minds of your customers by having the best understanding of them, it really doesn't matter what the other guys are doing. And you can't focus too much on what the middleman, the distributor or the retailer thinks. At Nike we listened to what the corporate footwear buyers at Foot Locker told us, but we relied much more heavily on listening and watching consumers. If the Foot Locker basketball footwear buyer said red would again be the hot color for the upcoming selling season, we were pretty sure it would be anything but red for the early adopters we were after.

The brands that captured our attention were outside our industry. There is a lot to learn from any brand that is on fire, creative, attracting and keeping great people and constantly innovating.

For advertising, we compared ourselves to the best advertising in the world, regardless of category. The only thing worse than comparing your marketing to your competitor's marketing is to compare your work to the stuff you did last year. That's a sure guarantee for incrementalism.

Wherever you and your competitors may be today, it is probably not where your consumers will be in a few years. The brand that figures out where it's all heading wins.


Overcoming the desire to test everything under the sun is probably the greatest hurdle for any company seeking brand reinvention. You simply can't research your way to everything and here's why: Consumers prefer the familiar and can have a hard time accepting the unexpected.

If you want to be only marginally better than last year and never stand out in a crowd, test every idea you have as often as possible. You will end with safe, perfectly unremarkable marketing. Last time I checked, most public companies need to make a profit, and unremarkable marketing can be a real drag on that.

Nike was the first brand to ever license an original Beatles song, "Revolution," for the launch of the Air Max product in 1987. In a rare moment of uncertainty in Beaverton, Nike tested the concept before airing. It would be the last time they tested a creative concept for a long time. Had they followed the direction of the groups, the spot would never have aired because it was too controversial. Same for Apple's "1984" commercial. Steve Jobs had the courage to run it Super Bowl Sunday even though his board of directors told him not to. Are you ready for that kind of courage?

We also put consumers on pedestals a bit higher than we should have in some areas of the marketing process. But consumers are not always right.

Consumers hold many of the keys to your brand house, but you're designing the house, not them. Look past what they say and get deep enough to know what they really mean by what they say and by what they fail to say. For every properly done focus group there are probably five that shouldn't have happened.

Most testing is done to either confirm a foregone conclusion or to cover everyone's collective backside in case it doesn't turn out well. If your focus groups amount to little more than really expensive toilet paper, shame on you. Spend that time and money on getting a better understanding of your customers before you go about creating a product or marketing message.

And if your boss is one of those who asks, "Where's the data?" every time you present something, ask him or her what kind of date they compiled when they made one of their life's most important decisions, like whom to marry. Ask to see that spreadsheet.

One final thing about pre-testing creative concepts. The redesign of Starbucks cafes that happened in late 1995, a process that created one of the most knocked-off visual brand languages on earth today and can be seen in more than 10,000 stores around the world, never saw a single focus group. But we did dig deeply to understand the ideal coffee experience from consumers, the 500-year-old culture of the coffee house, and the societal trends that would one day make the "Third Place" between home and work a part of everyday life for millions.


In 1995 Starbucks represented less than one-half of 1% of the U.S. coffee market in terms of green coffee. To reinvent the category, common sense would have suggested going where the volume was: the grocery channel. That's why most of the canned- and instant-coffee players at the time scoffed at us when we went about redesigning the stores, selling music CDs and stamping out bad coffee everywhere we could. We didn't set out to reinvent coffee; we set out to reinvent the coffee experience.

Aim high. Reinventing just your product or service may not be enough. Think about where it shows up, and what effect all the other forces that are present around your brand will have on it.

When Nike was struggling in the late 1980s, not long after the company laid off 15% of the workforce, it was at the mercy of big retailers like Foot Locker. The retail experience for our brand inside the four walls of most retailers was not a brand-positive experience. More challenging was our inability to sell anything outside of our core, athletic footwear. We couldn't give apparel away. So we created Nike Town.

Nike's drive into retail was not done to replace existing retail business-though it would offer some learning should we ever need to ever go fully into it-but instead to help lead it for the 20,000 storefronts that sold our product and for us to understand where the brand could play if we allowed it. Prior to the first Nike Town in Portland, Ore., apparel represented less than 10% of sales and was hugely unprofitable. Accessories were a rounding error. Golf equipment? Probably a sparkle in the eye of Bob Wood, who is Nike's president of golf today, but who was managing the hiking product line back then. Retailers told us we were a shoe company. Left to them, Nike would still be just that today.

It's not unlike considering Apple as just a computer company. Call an iPod what you wish, but I don't think most of us would call it a computer. Look at how music has played into the reinvention of that brand, and the effect that Apple's flagship stores have had on its brand perceptions.

Go to 100,000 feet as you think about reinventing your brand. You have to consider the unimaginable and see if it is plausible. Executing is often the easier part. It's breaking mental paradigms and looking beyond sacred cows that can be hard.

One of the great talents of a company like Nike is the "Zooming" that became part of the marketing and design process there. One moment the conversation would near a low-altitude earth orbit and the next we'd be talking colors, textures and commercial directors. Tinker Hatfield, Nike's chief footwear designer for nearly 20 years, took his design inspiration from automobiles, World War II airplanes, historical movements in design, and architecture and art. He preferred to look outside existing shoe-industry thinking.

So, think big. But as you do, know that you are entering the unknown, a place where mistakes and unforeseen challenges lie in wait.

Which leads me to the fourth way not to reinvent your brand...


Some of the most valuable things we can learn in business happen in the wake of a great mistake. There was a time, not long ago, when Nike could not do anything right by or for women. We spent years and millions of dollars trying in vain to figure that out. When we finally had had enough I tasked Arnie Jacobsen at QRC research to do a thorough qualitative "dig" with women so as to enlighten the predominantly male Nike management team at the time. The brief was one sentence: "We need to know how women think." We discovered that very few young professional women aspired to be a triathlete or an aerobics instructor. And few had the time, the opportunity, the desire or the ability to be a professional athlete. Their lives were complicated and often out of their control. They needed some inspiration and empathy.

But it took a few high-profile disasters in TV and print, not to mention thousands of pairs of pink swooshed shoes going nowhere fast, to realize our intellectual shortcomings. Within a year we developed the Kelly Award-winning "Empathy" print campaign and shortly thereafter knocked Reebok out of its perch with women.

If you didn't stretch and try something bold at Nike, if you didn't swing for the fence and fail, you didn't get far. But there was a catch. You had to learn from your mistakes, spread the learning and never make the same mistake twice. I gave this same latitude to my agency, Wieden & Kennedy, who made a number of mistakes but learned from them along the way. By both operating under the same rules, we ended up building a relationship uncommon the industry. I think we made them a better agency and they made us a better client. We were in it together and the shared sense of vulnerability that comes when you don't pretest anything kept us both fully accountable and at the top of our game.

Very few companies embrace this approach to the creative process and openly accept, if not encourage, risk taking. A business with an obvious aversion to risk taking is doomed to the mediocre middle of their industry.

Embrace mistakes.
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