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How Nike Achieved the ‘Perfect Storm of Innovation’

At the heart of Nike’s culture is the idea of serving athletes’ needs, which drives facets of the Beaverton, Ore. company’s business including its customer engagement strategy. In a fireside chat at Footwear News’ CEO Summit on Aug. 3, Sarah Mensah, vice president and general manager, North America at Nike Inc., said that what is “radical” is that the brand extends this “athlete” definition to all individuals.

“If you have a body, you are an athlete,” she said. “It means that we need to open the aperture of how we think about sport, open the aperture of how we think about athletes, open the aperture of what it means to serve athletes mentally, physically, spiritually.”

During the pandemic, Nike saw it as its “mission” to help shoppers with everything from movement to physical and mental health through its applications.

Supporting athletes’ needs also extends to creating seamless retail experiences across channels—whether digital and brick-and-mortar or wholesale and direct. Mensah noted that even as physical retail has picked back up, digital traffic has remained strong.

Nike has also introduced a membership model that allows for greater personalization. While membership was rolled out prior to the pandemic, the brand saw a boost in its member numbers during Covid thanks to higher digital traffic. “Membership really has the opportunity to help curate your unique needs and deliver you benefits that are specifically designed for you,” Mensah said.

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One area of expansion for Nike’s athlete outreach is women’s sports, including services and products designed for women. When asked about “pivotal moments” in Nike’s history, one that stood out for Mensah was Joan Benoit Samuelson winning the first women’s marathon in the Olympics in 1984. (Nike supported the lobbying effort to add the distance race for women at the Games.) Mensah added that she is “super proud of the moves that the brand has made to invest in women’s sports, most notably around the WNBA. And I think we’ve yet to see what the impact of some of these moves is really going to have long-term on the sport.”

Mensah is the first Black woman to head up Nike’s North American business. During the chat, she spoke about the impact the brand had on her at a young age. Not only did she grow up in Beaverton—home to Nike’s global headquarters—but the brand also made an impression on the track runner.

“I understood that Nike really was a brand that celebrated the beautifulness of Black people and Black athletes,” she said. “And at a time when ‘See it to be it’ was not really a buzzword, Nike really was a beacon for me as a young girl wanting to play sports. I saw the brand as one of the most aspirational brands to inspire me around what was possible.”

Using a fitting sports analogy, Mensah talked about building a “bench” at Nike. She said the corporate team is diverse—not only in aspects such as gender, but also in their backgrounds and capabilities, which span areas like retail and technology. This leads to what Mensah calls a “perfect storm of innovation.”

Mensah was appointed last year in the wake of a high-profile departure, and began her role mid-pandemic. The operational changes that came along with Covid afforded teams the flexibility to try out new ideas. While North America is Nike’s “largest and most mature market,” and some may have thought it was reaching the limits of its growth potential, Mensah noted Covid made it apparent that there is plenty of room to continue scaling.

“We had great strategy,” she said. “And it was the right strategy going in, but we were able to just advance it and move so quickly during the pandemic to advance it. That was all as a result of that team and how they were operating differently.”