Emotion by Design

Creative Leadership Lessons from a Lifetime at Nike

Leveraging Emotional Connections to Propel Your Business Forward

The ambition of scaling to a multimillion-dollar, iconic, beloved brand is a dream most business owners harbor. However, a daunting hurdle looms large – fierce competition.

Introducing Emotion by Design, your solution to standing out in a saturated market. This concept emphasizes the potency of emotion-led designs that strike a chord with consumers. Placing emotion at the core is a strategy that steers your brand towards sustained success.

In this Summary, you’ll glean insights from the inventive strategies that author Greg Hoffman wielded at Nike, fostering enduring bonds with customers.

The Power of Empathy and Curiosity

According to Mike Krzyzewski, Duke University’s basketball team coach, the competitive edge for brand marketers is the vision advantage. It’s an uncanny knack for noticing and harnessing insights that rivals miss, and transforming them into compelling narratives that stir emotions.

But how do you sharpen this vision advantage? The key lies in nurturing two indispensable traits – empathy and curiosity.

Empathy is crucial for grasping other people’s viewpoints. When empathetic, you become attuned to their emotions and develop a better comprehension of their aspirations, worries, and even latent desires. This newfound understanding fuels storytelling that mirrors the brand’s ethos, sparking radical transformations.

Encouraging empathy involves embracing diversity within your team. As your team members’ backgrounds diversify, so does your worldview. Therefore, it’s wise to actively include individuals from underrepresented groups in your team, allowing their unique experiences to infuse vibrancy into your brand and creative process.

Nike demonstrated the transformative power of empathy through its Equality campaign, launched in the wake of the 59th Annual Grammy Awards in early 2017. In the aftermath of the shootings of Black Americans Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, the brand sought to deliver a poignant statement about the longstanding injustice faced by Black Americans.

The campaign featured a short film underscoring the significance of fostering equality not just on the court, but in every sphere of life. Nike’s short film sparked a global equality campaign and was broadcast worldwide.

The second critical trait to refine your vision advantage is curiosity. By encouraging a quest for unconventional sources of inspiration, curiosity fuels your creative potential. Like muscles requiring regular workouts, curiosity must be exercised to nurture a seeker’s mentality.

Here are three straightforward methods to exercise curiosity.

First, maintain a visual journal. This should house images of anything that stimulates your creative mind. Snap a picture of anything that captivates you and browse your visual journal when you need a burst of inspiration.

Second, structure your trips around three central questions: who to meet, what to see, and where to go. Whether it’s a business or personal trip is irrelevant; what counts is the pursuit of inspiration wherever you are.

Finally, share your inspiring experiences with your team. Your travel experiences may inspire team members in unexpected ways. Plus, this keeps everyone informed, especially those who aren’t as adventurous.

Nike embraces curiosity by embarking on unique excursions, including restaurant visits to watch chefs at work. Observing creative experts in their element offers the team a fresh dose of inspiration.

Ultimately, the vision advantage can be transformative for your team. With empathy and curiosity, crafting stories that resonate with your audience and set your brand apart from the rest becomes an achievable feat.

Embrace Risk-Taking

It’s impossible to catch a wave without the risk of getting wet. Similarly, you can’t attain success without the willingness to take calculated risks.

As a budding business, you’re acutely aware of the significance of risk-taking and experimentation. It’s through this audacious mindset that industry breakthroughs occur. Therefore, the initial years of your business should be marked by a willingness to stake everything.

Regrettably, many brands abandon risk-taking once they achieve their goals, opting to play safe to safeguard their success. But that’s a strategy you should avoid. As your business grows, persist in fostering a culture of risk-taking, which can reveal novel and more effective ways of connecting and engaging with your customers.

Back in 2014, Nike was a reputable name in the sports industry, but had not yet solidified its standing as a football market leader. The company viewed the 2014 World Cup as a potential route to the desired leadership position. However, to achieve this ambitious goal, they had to think big. They needed an unconventional way to engage with customers that surpassed their standard campaign efforts. This led to the risky creation of the five-minute animated feature, “The Last Game.”

The film revolved around celebrated footballers like Ronaldo Nazário, Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Zlatan Ibrahimović, who fight to reclaim their beloved game from non-risk-taking clones created by an evil scientist.

Producing “The Last Game” posed numerous risks for Nike. Firstly, the production spanned over a year, the longest the brand had ever undertaken. Secondly, they had to stretch the standard commercial runtime to five minutes for effective storytelling, occupying valuable airtime for a piece that didn’t directly promote a specific product. But ultimately, these risks paid off. Nike emerged as the most-viewed brand of the 2014 World Cup, and “The Last Game” became the most shared video on Facebook.

This reinforces the lesson that to scale great heights, you must be willing to take risks.

Thoughtful Brand Identity Development

Connecting with a stranger is easier when you show your true self. This principle also applies in business. To foster emotional connections with your brand, you must reveal your true self, encompassing your values and purpose. This is the essence of brand identity development.

Your brand identity is akin to an individual’s signature – it’s your unique public persona. Fundamentally, brand identity comprises visual elements like your logo, color palette, and typography, which together create a recognizable and consistent visual representation associated with your brand.

Although every visual component is crucial, your logo deserves particular attention. It should boast a distinctive, simple design that narrates a compelling story. Your logo can symbolize your brand’s technology or innovation, or it can incorporate your brand’s initial. However, beyond the aesthetic considerations, it must encapsulate your values and purpose, or else it becomes a mere image.

Your brand identity, particularly what your brand represents, should also be evident in your product presentation. Every product you produce should reflect your brand identity to evoke emotions from your audience. Consider the famous Michael Jordan “Wings” poster as an example. With Jordan’s outstretched arms and a William Blake quote, the poster inspires consumers to reach for their dreams:

“No bird soars too high if he soars with his own wings.”

At first glance, you might think that Nike’s brand identity is simply the name and logo at the bottom of the poster. But it’s much more. The entire image and its message tie back to Nike’s ethos: anyone, not just athletes, can achieve greatness.

Your brand identity is a potent instrument that shapes perceptions, nurtures connections, and influences consumer behavior.


Crafting Emotionally-Resonant Narratives to Showcase Your Brand

A captivating tale stirs emotions deep within us, drawing us into its enchanting world. When it comes to narrating the story of your brand, the rule remains unchanged – to be truly memorable, it must evoke an emotional response.

Your brand’s narratives should always seek to illuminate your core values. While there are countless methods of storytelling, not all will necessarily hit the mark. A successful campaign like Nike’s “Find Your Greatness” during the 2012 London Olympics used film to underscore that greatness isn’t the privilege of a select few, but is accessible to everyone, everywhere. This concept was conveyed through a series of stories about athletes from various “London” cities worldwide.

Music, especially classic songs reinvented for a modern audience, can also create powerful emotional responses. Nike’s 2002 World Cup film showed football players in a secret tournament, set to a skilful remix of Elvis Presley’s “A Little Less Conversation” by Dutch DJ, JXL.

Emerging content platforms provide an innovative medium for distributing your brand story, beyond traditional TV commercials. In early 2012, Nike’s “Kobe System” campaign painted an image of Kobe Bryant, the legendary basketball player, as a humorously different persona off-court. They opted to create bite-sized content to be shared across platforms like Twitter and YouTube.

Using film, music, and new content platforms are just a few ways to create a gripping brand story. These tools can help weave tales that trigger emotions, captivate audiences, and etch your brand into their memories.

Take a moment to ponder your vision for your product.

Like most creators, you probably envision your product becoming a household name, earning a permanent spot in people’s lives. To follow the footsteps of cultural icons like the Ford Mustang or the iPhone may seem like an audacious ambition. But remember, there’s one path to such lasting impact: authenticity.

Instead of mindlessly chasing trends, let your brand’s unique identity and purpose shine. Falling into the trap of mimicry only dilutes your product’s emotional appeal, which is the death knell for consumer engagement.

The secret lies in your brand’s mission. This unique guiding star sets you apart and draws the crowd to you. Strive to create a product that aligns seamlessly with its intended purpose. That way, you can foster a genuine connection with your consumers who, in turn, will elevate your product to new heights.

When Nike launched the Air Force 1 in 1982, they didn’t aim to create a cultural icon. They designed a shoe specifically for basketball players, without grand marketing gimmicks. The Air Force 1 gained popularity when Moses Malone of the Philadelphia 76ers won a championship game wearing them. That success was sufficient to spark a frenzy, propelling the AF1s from the basketball court onto city streets. Decades later, the Air Force 1 continues to be a fan favorite, standing as a testament to the potent power of authenticity.

Emphasize the Mission of Your Product, Not its Mechanics

So, you’ve birthed an innovative product, imbued with state-of-the-art tech, and it’s time to sing its praises. The default route? Brandishing its unique features to any attentive ear. But here’s a bold proposal: this is not the route to create a devoted following for your brand. Customers are not fascinated by what your product can do, but rather how it can revolutionize their day-to-day lives. Let that be the North Star guiding your promotional strategies.

When your narrative emphasizes the ways your product can uplift their life, you’ll find people more readily believing in it. Once they’re believers, they’re your best evangelists, pulling in more believers into the fold. It’s a snowball effect, building a robust, enthusiastic community around your brand.

A key component of promoting your product’s mission is identifying a charismatic ambassador. This individual should resonate with your audience, inspiring them to rally behind your cause.

Look at Nike’s launch of the Apple Watch Nike+ in 2017, which beautifully encapsulates this mission-focused approach. Instead of parading the gadget’s unique attributes, Nike honed in on its raison d’etre – to spur non-elite athletes into a running habit. They saw that their best route to their audience’s hearts was through an ambassador who, like their target group, was not a professional athlete but was wildly enthusiastic about running. Kevin Hart was a shoo-in.

Kevin, whose running journey started with personal hurdles, discovered a fervor for the sport. He even catalyzed a running movement in June 2015, inviting Bostonians to run with him before his city gig. This impromptu event drew 300 local participants, showcasing Kevin’s ripple effect.

The Apple Watch Nike+ ad with Kevin didn’t spotlight on the watch’s specifications but pivoted around the empowering message, “Running just became a lot easier.” Kevin, in the following clips, could be seen tirelessly trotting through a desert, his persistence egged on by his watch.

By championing the mission of your product with the help of resonant ambassadors, you can create a tribe of customers who genuinely trust your brand and foster an impassioned narrative around it.


Your brand has the potential to eclipse its competition, but it requires tapping into the heartstrings of your consumers. It’s through these emotional connections that you can foster loyalty, advocacy, and lasting customer relationships that transcend transactional interactions. Irrespective of your business’s size, industry, or financial prowess, the inventive perspectives shared in this Summary can be a catalyst for achieving this objective.

Ultimately, it boils down to your willingness to be genuine and open, allowing your customers to perceive the human element behind your business operations.

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