Last September, the Nike Makers’ Experience at Nike by You Studio @ 45 Grand in New York became a time machine, transporting guests into the future of sneaker innovation. Beginning with graphic options that could include stream-of-conscious phrases from the guests or original Nike visuals, the experience then customized patterns, exploring size and color options with the use of a sort of sci-fi projection machine to throw the design options onto the blank shoes. It all ended in a highly personalized version of a traditional or slip-on Nike Presto X, both silhouettes created exclusively for the event.
It was a huge success but for VP of Innovation Special Projects, visionary and legend in his own right, Mark Smith, it was just the beginning. Smith’s “Pirate Ship” of five team members and his extended Nike family were tasked with solving a retail puzzle: “How do you scale that into stores?” pondered Smith. “How can we give everyone their 15 minutes of creativity, where they can walk into a corner and see the design on their feet like we did in the installation, on a body in motion with tools, graphics and colors to tell their own story?”
It all circles back to the fine art of selling sneakers in the 21st century. “Faster, better, more variety,” says Smith. “People want something familiar but want to also put their own spin on things, a customized product and service.” No doubt, but anyone who has tried to create something unique online, with unlimited color and pattern choices, can attest that there’s a reason design is usually left to the folks who earn the big bucks.
“Well, choices are the journey,” admits Smith. “It’s hard if there are too many choices and that’s where we get things like ‘clown shoes.’ Just because you can doesn’t mean you should! People just don’t know where to start. But, with the right curated choices, tools and guidance, choices can still feel limitless and open.” In other words, Smith aims to guide customers, narrowing choices just a bit. “We can give people the tools that I use when I work with our athletes -- a model of a shoe, storytelling through patterns, personal information and graphics -- asking questions, telling stories.”
And what about the customer who just wants to look like everybody else? Is he/she a sheep following the herd? “I bristle at the word ‘sheep,’” Smith admonishes. “The masses can be the power of the brand. In fact, choosing the same look is really no different than choosing one from the many.” Smith speaks further about “a statistic of one. Nothing should be dependent on age or gender. You have to be happy with what you’re getting."
The customer will exercise his or her choice with regard to a brand’s sustainable practices, too. “The way we make the shoes will evolve, getting them faster, setting the demand for delivery, scale and speed,” says Smith, “But we are figuring out how to do that with less material, energy and kinetic impact, materials and processes that allow us to be carbon neutral.”
The current Nike devotee wants it now, wants it special and likes to share it. “Everyone wants a surprise. Half of that is finding it. The other half is sharing it,” says Smith. That brings in social media and communication from an expert Nike marketing crew who work with Smith and his team, specializing in telling a broad story and helping fans share theirs. Take, for example, auto-lacing shoes. “You push a button and it laces itself,” says Smith. “Ten years down the road, it will know how your feet expand as you play, like Smart Shoes.
“If you’re the first one to do it, it’s innovation,” says Smith. “If you’re the best at doing it, you’re probably innovating, too. If you’re the only one doing it, it’s also innovation. We’re excited when we’re first, best and only.”