hypergene / media solutions

Nike.com - Pure Play
How the international sports retailer uses a successful graphic design strategy for branding across an online network.

by Shayne Bowman and Chris Willis
March, 2002

Target different online audiences around the world, with different products, while maintaining core brand identity in a network of sites. Extend the brand experience from a 30 second TV-spot to something that's much deeper.

Nike has a tradition of strong graphic identity, enormous brand awareness. They are the undisputed heavyweight champion of branding. In 2000, they sold nearly $9 billion sneakers, sweats, golf balls and more around the globe. Yet, they admit they're not in the apparel business. They're in the image business. From Tiger Woods to Michael Jordan, Nike surrounds itself with winners. Their print and TV ads are legendary for their sophistication, wit and execution. In a sense they strive for something close to perfection in crafting a message that's irresistible.

A network of targeted micro sites
Unlike its rival companies, Nike presents itself to many different audiences in different ways. It's a marketing strategy born from a sophisticated understanding of how people respond to images of lifestyle. Whereas most companies develop products for an existing market, Nike tries equally to create the image first and then respond to the market that emerges.

But devising a tactic to pursue niche markets is something not solved with a one-size-fits-all design approach. If your business is going after myriad audiences, it would be nearly impossible to satisfy the needs of all customers under one umbrella mega-site. The web is not a mass marketing engine. It's a place to begin one-to-one conversations with your customers. Male street basketball players are not likely to identify with the same site content as a female tennis players. Each Nike product has a particular group of potential athletes in mind. Each Nike site goes after those target groups, first beginning with the country, then the sport, i.e. NikeGolf.com, then with marketing content and products. Using similar structure, color, grid and logo treatment, Nike has created a cohesive identity across the network, but with relevant individuality to the target audience.

:: Chart of the Nike network

The Swoosh remains the same
Though it is only about 30 years old, there are few other symbols more recognizable around the world than the Nike Swoosh. Its form is simple and swift. It's meaning built masterfully over the years with billions of dollars of products, advertisements and research. Like a famous signature, it has earned a unique right to identify something as special — whether it's a pair of running shorts or a golf ball.

For such an elegant shape, the Swoosh carries a lot of weight. It is not a logo that is dressed up in lot of colors, showing up mostly in black or white. Nor does the logo change often, unlike the stylistically-driven Alfred A. Knopf dog. That it's strength. Keeping the Nike Swoosh conservative and consistent allows it to become a unifying device across channels such as TV, print or Web, which tend to be anything but that.

Such an approach gives the logo a status nearly approaching reverence but with versatility. This has been used to great effect in many Nike TV spots. The Swoosh can be at once seen as a symbol of ultra-cool punctuating the end of a basketball ad. Or it can be seen as deadpan funny when it appears like a punch line after Lance Armstrong has resuscitated a fallen elephant.

Such a pure example of iconography is rare and must be treated with respect. On the Web, Nike uses it's logo small and usually in the upper-left or lower right corner of their pages — quiet but confident. But the Swoosh is about the only thing stays constant.

It's not unusual for Nike to completely gut its NikeTown stores for a new look every 18 months. If their stores are that malleable, imagine the amount of change to their sites. Regardless of this constant change, the Swoosh will always remain the same.

A consistent structure
To embark on a strategy of creating as many sub-sites as Nike does requires more than a great logo to succeed. It requires a strong graphic identity and skill. Nike is adept at not only sniffing out popular cultural trends and desires but creating them as well. And to engage it's multifaceted audience to its many lifestyle images — such as "Ballers" or "Everyday Athletes" — Nike has turned to the Web and begun to create fine-tuned microsites.

The content on each site is unique and typically bathed in widly diverse color schemes. To anchor the designs, Nike keeps most pages neatly framed with gray bars holding similar elements like teasers to new sneakers or contests. Such structural cues can also provide an easy out for the confused or disinterested user.

Pages are designed with a modular approach in mind allowing elements to be mixed and matched. A repeated modular structure is valuable because it can be learned.

For example, the Nike Goddess site lets visitors to explore based on their mood rather than sport. It might sound like a confusing way to navigate but each mood is made up of the same modular parts — learn something, meet someone, do something.

Notice the differences between the "boost" and "energized" pages of NikeGoddess.com. The background colors are complimentary and the content is differerent but modular structure keeps them coherent and familiar enough to make it easy to find what interests you.

Scale, proportion and the grid
Different Nike micro-sites share common proportions, repetitive linear elements, and contrast. Pages are mostly devoid of sweeping arcs that have become motifs on other sites. Starting with the global homepage and beyond, there is an emphasis on the grid.

Notice how pages are typically horizontal, sometimes reaching the 16:9 proportions of widescreen movies. No scrolling down through pages of text and links. If it can't fit on the grid in a the size and scale necessary to fit in one screenful, it is made to do so. The overall effect is one of coordinated rhythm.

:: Nike network portal
:: Nike Basketball freestyle remixer
:: Nike Europe portal
:: Nike Hockey equipment page

If you push the envelope, provide alternatives
Nike is performance minded. And wants to create as complete an experience as possible whether in a NikeTown store or on the Web. There are inherent dangers to attempting immersive experiences. The greatest of these is confusion. Many Flash sites are confusing because they are unable to match up a worthwhile experience with what the technology can deliver.

Nike does a smart thing and embraces the limitations of technology. This must be difficult for such a perfomance-minded company used to pushing the envelope. But holding back, while requiring great discipline, is worth it.

On the Goddess site there are numerous simple Flash animations that explain something without crashing your browser or clogging a 56K modem. For more complicated experiences like the Freestyle mix, clearly labled plugins are noted and different length downloads are given as options.

Does this mean you should abandon experimentation? No. But you should make clear expectations to your users and do so in a non-exclusionary way. Remember you are not just designing a site but an experience. And if that experience is one of frustration or anxiety, you have failed.

A simple solution is to always offer alternatives to getting information. Nike provides not only video and audio but also transcripts of all the women interviewed on the Goddess site.

When thinking of pushing the envelope, ask yourself two questions:
• Is my design addressing the immediate needs of the site?
• Will the design and interaction experience enhance the reputation and image of the company?

Make the visitor the hero
Nike's site offers us an interesting idea when it comes to designing an online identity — make the site visitor the hero. Don't just shower them with unearned praise, challenge them to learn, provide them with the tools and information to decide and act for themselves.

This can be as simple as adding some customizable elements or more challenging such as letting them re-edit a famous commercial. Allow users to reveal what's important to them and why. The act of opening a dialogue is sometimes reward enough.

:: Nike ID products
:: Nike ACD Crash - snowboarding

Nike takes our ideas of beauty, grace, speed or sex and tells them back to us in their own way. But if Nike were to simply plaster these symbols on a web page, they would remain merely abstractions and pretty boring.

Nike's real design skill is making these ideas represent some greater concept, which is powered by the emotional and intellectual stock we're willing to bring to it. How do they do that? By using design, symbolism and coherence to stir up the most seductive idea to date — that there's a hero within you.

Shayne Bowman and Chris Willis of Hypergene.net, specialize in media product development and presentation design. They write and speak frequently on information & graphic design, creative development and the design process.

* "Nike" and the Nike logo are registered trademarks of Nike.


Nike Swoosh

The omnipotent Nike swoosh.

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