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Girly sports and black hockey (interview with Gordon Thompson of Nike)

Sportswear/apparel juggernaut Nike Inc. has cachet and street cred to burn. Even its trademark swoosh logo is an elegant graphic statement compared to the hamhanded triple stripes of Adidas and Reebok’s scattered intersecting arcs. In a lecture-cum-slideshow-cum-videoshow on October 30 as part of the Virtu Design in Perpetual Motion series, Nike VP of research, design and development Gordon Thompson III wowed a capacity crowd with the lavish hipness and intelligence of Nike design and advertising. The speech amounted to a giant human-resources/PR love-in – Thompson admitted that a goal of the gig was to recruit new designers.

Nike is a US$4.76 billion monolith. 896 million of those greenbacks came from apparel sales, most of the rest from footwear The Latin America/Canada division contributed US$25.76 million in ‘94. This year [1995], Nike spent US$409 million swallowing Canstar Sports Inc., the Canadian company that dominates the hockey-gear and -skate market (home of the Bauer and Cooper brands). When you think of Michael Jordan, Bo Jackson, or Andre Agassi, you think of Nike, for good or ill; the company elevated the hired shill to superstardom.

Nike has survived a Jesse Jackson-led boycott (the issue was the disparity between the large number of racial minorities in Nike’s customer base and the few in management) and persistent accusations that, by contracting out its manufacturing to Asian factories, it condones the factories’ frequent poor wages and working conditions. (Thompson: “The footwear-making process is a very, very labour-intensive process. Even though it’s in Asia, it’s a very, very long process.” That’s why it’s in Asia. “Yeah.”) Nike’s lush, high-concept, high-production-value, and often homoerotic advertising is a catechism on how to convince people, mostly kids, that they need a new pair of sneakers.

Fan through the pages of a Sports Illustrated today and Nike’s current print campaign for footwear – a simple product shot, a wee swoosh, and a toll-free number – will reveal Nike’s daring in shoe design: no laces; laces on the side; air pockets in the sole; fine netting covering the shoe in gradations of grey; vast yin-like areas seemingly carved out of a solid colour butted against yang-like areas of a contrasting colour. Even the swoosh can be a mere addendum, not a beacon – some swooshes are no bigger than your pinky. (Linguists, take note: the Nike pronunciation rhymes swoosh with douche, not bush.) For want of a better word, Nike has achieved postmodern shoe design.

It wasn’t always so. Reebok pummelled Nike in the ‘80s with its super-soft aerobics shoes, which people (mostly women) kept buying even though they wore out every three months. “Well, the table has turned now,” Thompson said in an interview. “I think Nike’s women’s offering is outselling Reebok’s significantly now.” (He refers to footwear.) “To me, I think it’s sort of the difference between targeting aerobics and fitness vs. sports, and [in] the track we’re going down, women who play sports is the audience. Instead of always imaging or talking about product in the gym, we’re talking about product more about on the field and on the courts.”

Do we detect a whiff of condescension? Aerobics is not an activity that superbutch young straight guys – the prime Nike market – have any tolerance for. The women’s activities Thompson has in mind – mountain biking, volleyball, “team sports” – are interchangeable with men’s activities; all the same, there are real-world differences in the sociology of sport between men and women and boys and girls.

“I don’t know if we’ve ever really been condescending as much as we just didn’t support a market, an idea that was there. We missed the bandwagon, and anyone at Nike would tell you we missed it. And everyone would tell you Reebok was there first and with better product and had a foothold in women’s marketing because of that. But I think we’ve also delivered significant product since then in that area.”

Thompson – only 34 years old and an architecture and environmental-design grad – oversees a flotilla of 600 designers. (They don’t publish much research; Thompson could not explain why the most recent citation I could find was a single journal article from ‘93.) His lecture described Nike’s design goals – “creation of big ideas,” “element of surprise,” “necessity for integrity,” and “the importance of being there” – with copious slides, TV commercials, and in-house videos, the effect of which was amorphous and disconnected in the manner common to design symposia. Design, like music, defies expression in words; maybe Thompson’s visual approach was canny.

Successful design in consumer products is often indistinguishable from simple change, if not planned obsolescence. This season’s shoes are hot because they’re different from last season’s, not necessarily better. [Nike’s current summer 1996 “Who the hell does Nike think they are?” ad campaign states explicitly that they do believe each new shoe is better than the last.] The hockey market, however, is a big challenge for the R&D operatives at Nike and Canstar. The design of hockey gear, while steadily improving in technical capacity, has been landlocked for decades. In particular, hockey desperately needs dramatic innovation in materials – for example, a covering for gloves and pads that’s tough, removable, and above all washable. (You can’t really wash sweaty hockey pads today, the consequences of which are apparent to anyone who has spent time at a hockey player’s place.) Nike needs to graft 1990s technology onto an 1890s sport.

“Here we’ve got a terrific opportunity to really not only invent and innovate but look like the good guys in the deal – as well as Nike bringing something to the sport that has been severely lacking or has just not been paid enough attention to,” says Thompson. Expect hockey gear and inline skates featuring the ubiquitous swoosh.

A sociocultural query: With Nike’s knack for making sporting goods hip, particularly among “urban” American youth (read: African-Americans), how will Nike make the whitebread nordic sport of hockey appealing to its large black American customer base? “Well, I mean, I think you’re sorely mistaken if you think that we ever have marketed specifically towards one ethnic group vs. another. I mean, that’s crazy.... We’re going to market to whoever’s playing hockey, regardless of where they’re from and who they are and whether they’re green....

“I don’t know if you necessarily have to make it appealing or anything. I think you follow what sports people are tracking on and people are thinking about, and a brand like ours... maybe by us associating, you know, ourselves with hockey makes hockey somewhat more--” Hip? He laughs in assent. “We’re certainly not going to go in there and change the rules or anything like that. Obviously it’s going to be about the player and what they’re wearing.” But not in that order, necessarily.

See also

A sidebar on the graphic design of the Nike T.O. campaign.

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