The Nike FuelBand is one of the more promising products in wearable computing. But as larger technology rivals—from Samsung to Google to Apple—enter the space, can an outlier like Nike still continue to compete?
That was the subject of a response from Nike CEO Mark Parker at Fast Company's recent Innovation by Design conference, where he was asked about Nike's digital future. Consumers and critics have lauded Nike for making the unexpected and difficult pivot from an athletic apparel company to one that's also focused on hardware, software, and services. But as Parker explained on stage, he's fully aware of Nike's digital limitations—and therefore isn't opposed to partnering with others where it makes more sense.
"It's really important to understand what we do well . . . what we bring to the party, so to speak, and actually amplify that, " Parker said, "and not to expect [us] to really go in and compete with the latest, greatest development of sensor technology."
The revelation indicates that Nike knows it can't compete with the big R&D budgets of tech giants. The company isn't creating the next iWatch, after all. But while it's certainly putting more than a toe in the water of the wearable space, Parker knows Nike may need help to take a deeper dive. "This is going to be an opportunity for us to extend collaboration and partnerships with others—in fact, I would say any companies, any businesses, really looking to realize [their] full potential in the innovation space need to have a very open mind to the types of collaborations and partnerships that are going to enable that potential," Parker said. "It's been a really important breakthrough for us over the last 15 to 20 years to recognize that we can only do so much on our own."
Indeed, Nike has a long history of partnering with innovators for projects seemingly outside its core business. For the FuelBand, it teamed with a range of companies, including Astro Studios, R/GA, Whipsaw, and Synapse. The most famous example, however, is its collaboration with Apple on Nike+, the company's early foray into digital sport products. Perhaps Parker's comments foreshadow another future partnership with Apple, which is reportedly developing its own wearable device. If Apple's product (or one of its competitors' products) renders the FuelBand and similar fitness devices obsolete, then it's inevitable that Nike will need to partner with another company to keep a stake in the game.
Whereas Jawbone, which recently acquired fitness monitoring company BodyMedia for $100 million, seems intent on forging its own path, Parker is uniquely aware of the potential if not the necessity for partnering with companies such as Apple.
"[When you] collaborate with people deep, deep, deep into specific areas, and you can pull those pieces together to create something truly unique and different, that's when the magic starts to happen," he said. "It's really important for us to always understand, What's our rudder in the water?"