When Nike CEO Mark Parker is about to reveal something ahead of the company's plan, his PR teams will try to stop him. Parker is sitting in his office on Nike's Beaverton, Oregon, campus—a room filled with endless oddities and knick-knacks—discussing Nike's digital future. "The digital and physical worlds are starting to come together more seamlessly—it's only the tip of the iceberg in terms of what's coming. I can't get into all the details here, but just imagine..." He stops abruptly when someone on his PR team shoots him a look. "Oh, see this is where [my handlers] give me the stink-eye," Parker says, smiling.
If Parker is tiptoeing through this chat, it's in part because Nike is undergoing a digital revolution, having launched its innovative Nike+ platform, the technology giving the company life on iPhones and Xboxes, as well as hardware products such as FuelBand, the slick electronic wristband that tracks your activity. As Forrester Research analyst Sarah Rotman Epps puts it, "Nike has broken out of apparel and into tech, data, and services, which is so hard for any company to do." In the coming years, Nike will expand its footprint in the digital space, especially through partnerships like the one it struck with TechStars, to attract startups to build on the Nike+ platform. So Parker is hesitant—he doesn't want to spoil any surprises. But in the course of talking with Fast Company about how Nike ranks among the world's Most Innovative Companies, Parker offered fascinating clues into what's next in Nike's digital transformation.
Leaning back in his chair, Parker says he's especially excited about the potential for delivering new kinds of feedback to customers. Products like FuelBand, which gives users real-time updates on how many calories they've burned or steps they've taken throughout the day, often serve as a motivating force to elicit more energy output. The wristband offers simple color cues to encourage more activity from users—red for less active, and green for more active. Nike is now looking for novel ways to create more motivational tools in its digital arsenal.
"Just imagine if your body could control or change the music that you're listening to—if your movement could actually change the cadence of the music, the tempo, or the beat. Sound—there's a lot of things going on in that area that are very exciting," Parker says. "So there could be new ways to get feedback—through audio feedback—for how your body is performing. The same could happen with heart rate."
It's a novel idea, and one that takes advantages of the things people are already using when exercising—that is, listening to music while running.
Parker also says "visual feedback" is another area of interest. Rather than use one universal color code for activity, he imagines there could be more specific uses of visual feedback. "These are examples of ways that you can bring the performance of your body alive through different sensory inputs. Color is one: if your heart rate was converted into color, or your movement was converted into color. But it's all about giving the athlete more feedback and helping use that feedback or interpret that feedback in a way that's going to improve their performance or their level of fitness or just make the experience a lot more interesting."
Of course, such pie-in-the-sky ideas are more likely closer to vaporware—concepts that may or may not make their way into final products. On a more practical level, Nike Digital Sport division VP Stefan Olander told me Nike's digital future is likely to involve more personalization. "How can we understand more about you, learn more about your motivation, so we have our whole exploration around making this better for you by knowing more about what you need?" he says. That's in addition to what he calls "new, smarter hardware."
And don't think such devices will be limited to the wrist, like FuelBand.
"You know, wherever there is a good place to learn about the body, we're looking at it," Olander hints.
[Photo by Art Streiber]