Fast Company

Nike's Women's Movement

Can a famously high-testosterone company, built on brash ads and male athletic fantasies, finally click with female customers? That's the challenge behind Nike Goddess, whose goal is a once-and-for-all shift in how the company sells to, designs for, and communicates with women.

Martin Lotti has a reputation inside Nike for outlandish designs inspired by pilgrimages to interesting places. Last year, after spending time in Miami's South Beach, he created a running shoe that looked like a sandal. "No one thought you could make a running shoe without a heel," he says. Lotti thought he could, and the result was the Air Max Craze, Nike's first-ever sling-back shoe.

Today, in his office in the Mia Hamm building at Nike headquarters, Lotti is holding his most radical design for 2002. Inspired by a pilgrimage to Japan, what's most striking about the shoe is its austerity. It's a slender black slip-on with a tiny "swoosh" on the heel. "This," says Lotti, "is the Air Kyoto. It's Nike's first yoga shoe."

Talk about outlandish. A Nike shoe for an activity practiced in bare feet? A Nike shoe for an activity with no SportsCenter moments? A Nike shoe for an activity practiced overwhelmingly by women? "There was such beauty in Kyoto," Lotti recalls. "I was mesmerized watching young people dressed in kimonos going to the temples." He returned to Beaverton, Oregon to design a shoe with "that same simplicity and grace."

Lotti expected a less-than-graceful reaction from his higher-ups. But when he pitched the design as a before-and-after yoga shoe to his new boss, Darcy Winslow, a 14-year company veteran who was only a few weeks into her role as global footwear director for women, she gave him the go-ahead. In fact, she insisted that the shoe be ready for the 2002 fall collection.

Why the rush? Winslow is a leading figure in Nike Goddess, a companywide grassroots team whose goal is a once-and-for-all shift in how a high-testosterone outfit sells to, designs for, and communicates with women. "This is the beginning of a larger mantra at Nike," says Winslow. "We had to wake up to the women's business and do it differently. We had run great ads and supported great women athletes. But nothing seemed to gel."

Air Kyoto was one step in a journey to transform Nike.

The Making of a Movement

In its 30-year history, Nike has become the undisputed leader in sports marketing. If boys wanted to "be like Mike," marketing executives wanted to be like Nike. But lurking beneath the company's success was an aching Achilles' heel. Nike is named after a woman -- the Greek goddess of victory -- but for most of its history, the company has been all about men. Last year, revenue from women's products hovered at a paltry $1.5 billion (less than 20% of sales), even though the market in women's sports apparel had been skyrocketing. According to the NPD Group, women's sports apparel generated sales of more than $15 billion in 2001 -- nearly $3 billion more than men's apparel.

How could Nike have failed so miserably with women? And how could it afford to keep failing, given the threats to its future? The Air Jordan phenomenon has been running out of air. Labor activists have damaged the company's reputation with the MTV crowd. And brands like Skechers have been digging into the teen market with shoes inspired by skateboarding, not basketball. What would it take for Nike to take women seriously?

That has been a huge question in Beaverton over the past few years. Nike Goddess is the makings of an answer. For much of its history, Nike's destiny was controlled by its founders, the running buddies who sold shoes out of their trunks, signed up athletes in locker rooms, and made executive decisions at retreats called "Buttfaces." But by throwing together a diverse collection of people with different backgrounds and different levels of seniority, Nike has found that it can keep many of its core attributes while adding new sources of inspiration.

Take the combination of star designer (and Nike veteran) John Hoke and newcomer Mindy Grossman, vice president of global apparel. Hoke, a 6-foot-4-inch snowboarder, designed the look and feel of the first Nike Goddess store in Newport Beach, California. Then Grossman, whose career has included helping make Ralph Lauren into a retail icon, pitched the design ideas to Nike's top retailers as stores within stores. "We need to be where women shop," says Grossman. "For too long, we've been relegated to a few racks near intimate lingerie."

Of course, radical innovation rarely follows a straight line. But there's a feeling that Nike has a chance to reach a crucial objective: double its sales to women by mid-decade. "Nike Goddess is the manifestation of us getting our act together," says Mark Parker, Nike's brand president and one of a handful of executives who report to chairman Phil Knight. "It also helped us realize that the Nike brand could be so much more. We don't want to be the number-one sports brand in the world. We want to bring innovation and inspiration to every athlete."

"It feels like we're finally in the zone," adds Cindy Trames, a footwear product director who reports to Darcy Winslow. "Nike Goddess has got that magic. You feel 'in the moment,' like this is unstoppable."

How to Sell to Women

Nike Goddess began as a concept for a women's-only store, and there's a reason why. Niketown, the retail setting for which the company is best known, is also known to be a turnoff to female customers. Consider the San Francisco Niketown. The women's section is on the fourth floor. But getting there isn't a matter of taking a few escalators. At each floor, women looking for workout shoes or a yoga mat have to wade through displays on basketball, golf, and hockey to catch the next escalator up. The feel of the store is dark, loud, and harsh -- in a word, male.

"I got used to hearing people describe us as brutal," says Hoke, the designer behind most Niketowns. "But that's because our initial reaction to selling the Nike brand was to turn up the volume. Goddess is about turning the volume down. I wanted people to come in and take a breath."

Hoke, who was recently named global creative director of footwear design at Nike, headed to California for inspiration. He toured the house of Charles and Ray Eames. The 1950s designers, with their airy, clean aesthetic (known as Palm Springs Modernism), captured everything that Hoke thought a woman would want in a place to shop. "Women weren't comfortable in our stores," he says. "So I figured out where they would be comfortable -- most likely their own homes. The store has more of a residential feel. I wanted it to have furnishings, not fixtures. Above all, I didn't want it to be girlie."

At the first Nike Goddess store, located at the Fashion Island mall, in Newport Beach, California, the mood fits Hoke's plans. It's light blue and white, with dark wood floors. Milky-white mannequins with muscles fill the floor-to-ceiling windows. Shoes are displayed on tables or wooden shelves alongside pieces of Jonathan Adler pottery and white orchids. Overnight, the store can be overhauled to focus on a specific sport or trend -- whatever is fashionable for the times.

Nike declines to give sales numbers for its two Goddess stores in southern California. But they have proved popular enough for Nike to want to build several more around the country in the next year. "This tells everyone that we are serious about this business," says Grossman. "This isn't a little side project."

Next year, Lady Foot Locker will incorporate part of Nike Goddess's retail philosophy into its 600 stores. Nordstrom plans to take much of the Goddess look, shrink it, and install it in its highest-traffic stores. Macy's Herald Square, in New York, is getting a smaller version of a Goddess store later this year.

For Hoke, the real power of Nike Goddess is not about traffic at stores. It's about changing minds in Beaverton. "I knew that Goddess could galvanize us," he says. "It wasn't just an opportunity to do a better job for women at retail. It was an opportunity to recalibrate and reenergize our entire brand around a market that was taking off."

How to Design for Women

Designing a new approach to retail was only one element in Nike's effort to connect with women. Another was redesigning the shoes and clothes themselves. Nike's footwear designers worked on 18-month production cycles -- which made it hard to stay in step with the new styles and colors for women. The apparel group, which worked around 12-month cycles, was better at keeping up with fashion trends. But that meant that the clothes weren't coordinated with the shoes -- a big turnoff for women.

Those and other issues were spinning around in Darcy Winslow's head when her boss, Eric Sprunk, vice president of global footwear, came to her last summer with a proposition: take over as global footwear director for the women's division. She was happy as Nike's director of sustainable business opportunities. But Sprunk was offering her a chance to drive the kind of changes that she'd always criticized the company for not making. She took the job, on two conditions. "I wanted men and women to be allies, not competitors," she says. "And I wanted a seat at the table. The women's business had to be core to Nike."

Sprunk handed her an empty organization chart and told her to start filling it. And the job came with senior status: Winslow would have a line to Mark Parker, keeper of the Nike brand.

For Lotti, the shoe designer behind the Air Kyoto, landing on Winslow's org chart was a dream. Working in Winslow's group "was like having the blinders taken off," he explains. "Before Goddess, we never got to see the 'in-between places' where shoes like the Air Kyoto could make sense. We were always thinking just about running, or basketball, or soccer."

Now, those in-between places are guiding Nike's approach to design. One key insight: For most women, high performance isn't about sports; it's about fitness. "We never appreciated the whole world of the active lifestyle," concedes Parker. "We had such a jock heritage -- for men and women -- that we never saw anything beyond that." Adds footwear product director Cindy Trames: "It's about a woman's nomadic lifestyle. We go from doing yoga in the morning, to work, to picking up the kids, to going for a run. Nike has to fit into that kind of life."

That's why Nike designers and researchers have spent time scouring trendy workout spots like London's the Third Space to pick up on new fitness trends that it calls the "21st-century gym." And some of the company's designs don't involve workout gear at all. Apparel designer Amy Klee pulls on a black trench coat piped with silver. As she zips it up and starts modeling, Klee says, "I kept thinking about women schlepping around a city like New York. They needed something that would survive rainstorms but that would also look great at a place like the Equinox gym. I thought, Why shouldn't we have everyday clothes that perform as well as our workout gear?"

Using the breathable, waterproof fabric that makes up Nike's workout gear, Klee cut a classic above-the-knee trench and added a two-way zipper. "So if you want more room around the hips, you can get it," she says, showing off how. The sleeves and seams are trimmed with reflective material that's usually found on running shoes. "It looks great," Klee says, "but you'll also be seen as you cross a dark street."

That's the beauty of focusing on the in-between. "Fashion is fleeting," says Mindy Grossman, Nike's VP of global apparel. "We have to be enduring. We have to be Nike performance married to style."

How to Talk to Women

Two years ago, Jackie Thomas, Nike's U.S. brand marketing director for women, first heard the phrase "Nike goddess," and it made her cringe. "I don't like talking to women through gender," she says. "Marketers spend too much time reminding women that they're women."

Of course, for much of its history, Nike either treated women like men or didn't think much about them at all. Sometimes, though, Nike got the voice right. Back in 1995, the company ran a campaign titled "If You Let Me Play" that struck a nerve with most women, including Thomas, who had grown up "believing I could do anything boys could do." (Thomas played college basketball and then started her own personal-training gym for women, among them professional basketball players.) The campaign featured female athletes talking about how sports could change women's lives, from reducing teen pregnancy to increasing their chances of getting a college education.

Nike Goddess had to strike a similar chord with women, and it was Thomas's job to make that happen. Nike Goddess had to be more personal than Nike's traditional ads, Thomas decided, so her team created the company's first "magalog" (a cross between a magazine and a catalog) to roll out the name. On the cover, Thomas put a photograph of Marion Jones. But instead of showing Jones competing, she chose a simple shot of Jones's feet against green grass. Inside, articles such as "Ready in a Flash" offered beauty tips for gym rats, and stories such as "Realistic Solutions" aimed to inspire women to get back on track with their commitments.

The approach didn't work. "We had swung the pendulum too far from Nike's core image," Thomas says, "because we thought that power was a weakness when it came to women."

So what did women want? "Women love that Nike is aggressive, that it's competitive," says Thomas. The difference between women and men is that women don't treat athletes like heroes. "No woman thinks that she'll be able to run like Marion Jones because she wears shoes that are named after her," says Janelle Fischer, the women's marketing manager for Nike.

So Thomas had to find a new way to talk to women about athletes. One solution: Don't just dwell on superstars. "We'd always defaulted to the dominant athlete," says Trames. "We needed to listen to women when they said, 'I'm not a runner; I just run.' "

Fast-forward to the sixth issue of the NikeGoddess magalog, which was published this past May. On the cover is a young Asian woman with short, dyed blonde hair. She is sticking out her tongue to show what looks like a piercing. Actually, it's two little Nike shoes. The soft fashion-magazine articles are gone, replaced with "remedies for spring fever" and a small feature on a woman who surfs off the coast of Brooklyn. "This is no longer about 'If You Let Me Play,' " says Thomas. "Women don't need anybody's permission. We are at our best when we are showing women a place where they didn't think they could be."

Fara Warner (fwarner@fastcompany.com) is a Fast Company senior writer based in San Francisco. Visit Nike Goddess (www.nikegoddess.com) on the Web.

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