Going to Extremes – how Nike found their latest innovation

Post by David Nichols, Group Managing Partner and Head of Invention.

Nike is an $35bn behemoth global iconic brand that has stayed at the top of a hugely competitive market and at the front of culture for more than 40 years.  Many of us think of them as a fashion brand, but at the heart of the business has always been technical product innovation.  Air cushioning, sockless shoes, performance fabrics – almost in every part of their product line the have pushed the technical boundaries.  But how do they do it, or more importantly, how do they keep doing it?  One way, of course, is to work with top athletes and get them to help extend product performance to suit their elite needs.  But this is not the only way.

Another way is to go to extremes.  And that is what Nike have done with their latest footwear innovation to be launched this week: Nike Go .  It’s a hands-free sneaker.  Literally – you don’t need to use your hands to take it on or off, yet it’s still a cool looking Nike shoe.

To get to this innovation, they didn’t just do research with regular consumers, they went to extremes.  The original inspiration came from working with disabled athletes some of whom did not have hands.  How could they wear Nike shoes?  This inspired an internal innovation challenge.  The result is a step-out innovation that could capture significant share of new consumer cohorts and occasions – a great strategic move for an incumbent leader. 

If you want to stretch your innovation boundaries and try it the Nike way – here is the approach:

  • Recruit Extreme Consumers – Look at your market and ask yourself for what ind of person would using your product have much higher stakes?  What situation, occasion or part of the world is different so that choosing or using your product would make a huge difference?  Recruit these people for your market research and listen hard. Here are some of the people we’ve spoken to on recent brandgym projects in search of deeper insights to fuel our ideas for mainstream products:
    • Opera singers for throat lozenges
    • Deep sea divers for sinus medication
    • Michelin starred chefs for dog treats
  • Generate multiple ideas in parallel – Nike didn’t just get one team to have an ideas session and expect them to come up with ideas like this.  They briefed lots of innovation teams – in this case running a competition.  You can do the same – get people involved from the periphery of your organisation: agencies, junior teams, suppliers etc.  Don’t worry that the ideas they come up with may be beyond current capability or go too far.  Roll with it.  Gather their ideas and use them to build stretchy but viable solutions.  Their off-the-wall ideas will be the spark to help you fiund that next great innovation.  Just like Nike did by thinking how could they help people with no hands use their shoes.
  • Explore them with ‘regular’ consumers – This is where the magic happens.  As Nike did, take the new ideas from the extremes and share them with regular consumers – listen hard to the answers.  Move past the ones that would be ‘great for a special occasion/one-off’ and focus on where they feel relevant to a frequent occasion.  That’s where the opportunity lies.  When we invented Calippo Shots it was the teens who said it would be good to have something they could eat with one hand that we listened to.  Their other hand would be on their bike/phone/girlfriend – frequent occasions!
  • Zero in on your target – This is what I expect Nike are now doing at a furious pace.  They have launched their prototype to test the water and seen it get a warm response.  Now I imagine they are working out which new target occasions or cohorts they could target best with this innovation.  They have suggested pregnant women, busy moms and the ‘pop outdoors’ slipper occasion currently targeted by Mahabis.  Watch this space.


If you want to develop innovation for the mainstream like Nike do, it pays to look at the extremes for inspiration! 

See below for a video from Nike with insight to the shoe and its design.