“Our job is to wake up the consumers. If we become predictable, that’s not waking them up.” Phil Knight, Nike founder
How much of an advantage would working at Nike give you in future endeavors? How much more insight to grow a brand? Or create the next great startup?
Over a more-than-25 year career at Nike, Peter Ruppe led Nike’s basketball business, including the Jordan brand, for nearly a decade. Peter led the development of a host of brand concepts including Nike Plus and led the effort to turn Nike’s non-core business into a $1 billion portfolio.
Peter Ruppe is President of Alchemy Global Holdings, LLC, a team and online platform that brings expertise in raising capital, in developing brands and business operations, and in financial performance to companies in the sports and entertainment markets to transform investment dollars, as well as personal and company brands, into greater value. (A version of this article originally appeared on LinkedIn)
I had a chance to get inside Peter’s head to gain insights into what he took away from his time at Nike.
On Startups, Mistakes and Gaining Traction
What’s the biggest branding mistake startups make when developing a new brand?
P.R.: The biggest branding mistake startups make is that when we are in the early phases of a venture, we are not really thinking of branding and the importance of brand identity. We have a spark, an inspiration, or insight that compels us to create our business. We focus on this.
Though Nike started in 1972, it didn’t focus on brand development until the later 1980s. Fortunately, we had a great leader in Phil Knight. As we experienced rapid growth, he would be quick to remind us to stay humble and in touch with athletes and customers. Our big brand voice in advertising with campaign work like “Just Do It” and the Spike and Mike (Spike Lee and Michael Jordan) TV commercial series was balanced with a very high touch quality from the Nike team.
We will often name it in a manner that works for the moment and expresses the core idea (see the before logo below for the early phase name and logo of this startup). This can work well at times, and we know today that any name can be filled with the character and meaning we desire if the core idea is powerful enough. However, it can also lead us to lose sight of the emotional element of what we are really in the process of creating — the deeper, richer substance behind the product or service idea.
To compound this relatively unconscious means of brand development, we will find that the actions that develop a brand are overlooked until the business is developed enough to really express brand character and meaning. For many startups, this may be too late.
With the new company and brand, Alchemy, we were able to address this early enough in our startup before any roots had formed underneath our previous name and brand.
Brands are built by substance. How well have we attended to our own beliefs and behaviors in the development of the brand? Early on, we may not be a aware of the impact of how we behave toward our market though it may have a powerful impact on the brand’s potential.
This is why so many successful brands have such humble beginnings. We worked hard to earn our market, we demonstrated our appreciation, and then we’re rewarded for it. It’s at that point the brand is created.
With so many brands vying for attention, and the glut of so many new startups, would you define the role of design and branding to help companies truly cut through the noise?
P.R.: It takes a complete and intended effort to cut through in crowded competitive markets, especially for a new brand.
Design is the practice of intent. It is being able to fully consider what we want to bring into being as the first act of creating it. The creation process is managing the tension between what we intend to create and the current condition we are in in relation to this creation. If we consider the “why” behind what we are doing, then we want to be able to create a brand to convey this in support of the “what” we are creating. The brand development process is vital to drawing this out.
At Nike, the journey to bring Nike Plus to market took me nearly six years. We knew from the beginning that we were adding a digital experience to workouts. Though we had created some hardware, this wasn’t our goal. We needed something to convey this idea of adding to the experience. We tried naming it (Nike Lab), but it wasn’t right. The clock was ticking and it wasn’t gelling yet. Then one day in a meeting, I looked over at a designer’s notepad. It had the Nike swoosh followed by a plus sign in his notes. Eureka! In that single moment, all the tension and mental gymnastics paid off.
During our creative process on the Alchemy brand, it was inevitable there will be moments of discomfort between where we currently are and where we are striving to be as a brand. That’s part of the process.
If we keep our vision on the goal we have as a brand, that inevitable discomfort phase (like awkwardness as a teenager) won’t distract us, will pass and leave us able to put everything into it.
The brand is a key part of this. It is a symbol of origin for what we are bringing into being. It deserves the same highly considered effort as the design of any product or service being offered. It is as much a symbol of who we are as of what we offer.
To cut through, everything we do has to pull together in an authentic and cohesive way. Through this you have a chance to be noticed, seen and related to. The brand work creates a soulful space for the product or service to exist in. It generates emotion, and opens the possibility of a market being drawn into a relationship with you.
If our collective brand work does not hold together, this will be seen as well, and we will not be able to cultivate much of a relationship.
What was the challenge you saw for the new brand identity?
P.R.: As we were working to launch Alchemy Global, we had a several key challenges.
- First, we are not consumer-facing in our value proposition. This can make it easy to convince yourself it is not such an important element of our business. The first step for us was to collectively get uncomfortable with that idea. We had to come to a collective perspective that we were going to be much better at expressing who we are and why it matters by seeking the right brand expression.
- Second, we needed to be clear about our value proposition and intent as a business. There was a lot of discussion among us about who we are, what we do, and why anyone would care. The effort to design the brand identity forged our collective understanding of what we were doing as a business, how we worked together, and the way we would operate. It forced us to be very conscious and clear about it.
- Third, we had to iterate and agree on the brand identity. This iterative process tested what worked best for us and why.
- Finally, we had to find a solution that worked legally (as a trademark) and aesthetically. The whole branding process is a journey of self-discovery for a business. It has been for us.
There was the naming phase and then the visual development of the brand identity. What milestones were most notable for each?
P.R.: The brand development process is a journey of self-discovery. It drives awareness of who we are, and the story to be shared about us.
The simple milestones exist on the surface. We agree on a collective brief, a name, an icon, a tag line, a color palette, and so on. Each step builds momentum and establishes your brand within you. The truth is that it never stops.
Once you’ve begun the process of brand development, you realize that it is an ongoing expression of who you are. Every engagement in the process — from client or market interaction, to website and content development, to extensions of your product or service, to who joins the team — all are elements of the evolving creation of your brand and your culture. Each is a milestone and should be considered for its impact on who you are.
Any last tips on design or branding for those starting a new company or rebranding an existing one?
P.R.: Make sure to prioritize the value of going through the brand development process.
Design clearly what you intend to become, then always test to see if you are operating in accordance with your brand characteristics, promise and truths. If you are not, then you have a great opportunity to revisit the journey and get clear on who you are and why it matters.
Perhaps because Peter and his partners and I saw eye to eye on these branding and design principles, my work in developing the new Alchemy Global brand was a satisfying and rewarding marriage of synergy and teamwork. You can see the results below.
Have a company you’re starting or a brand that needs a refresh or new lease on life? Let’s talk.
Nike photo credit: multitel / Shutterstock.com