How many women does it take to change a Nike?

As Nike continues to feel the effects of revelations about its sexist company culture, Bec Brideson considers how the strong brand's untempered ego ultimately led to weakness.

As I poured over the NYT’s lengthy expose on Nike last weekend over my morning coffee and vegemite toast, a bright glaring light bulb went off over my head. Do we need any more proof that businesses need a 21st century reality check in the form of a gender brand audit?

Brand audits measure a brand’s market orientation: the strength of its current position in-market in comparison to its competitors and its ability to react and adapt to market movements and power shifts.

Gender brand audits differ in that they measure the strength of your brand in connecting with male and female customers, and how sensitised your business is to the financial and commercial imperative of seeing gender difference.

With Nike’s need to grow new avenues for revenue, a gender brand audit would have been indispensable a year ago, instead of now, long after the fact.

Nike’s brand is strong. In fact, you could even say it is one of the most powerful in the world. The simplicity of that tick, the power and brevity of ‘Just do it’ stick in your mind as much as a Macca’s M or Coca Cola’s cursive.

Strong brands do better – they make more money, they’re more memorable, more familiar. But strength can lead to untempered ego, and in a way that lack of maintenance of brand ensured an inevitable Stalinist purge.

The first red flag, and the first examination any gender brand audit should focus on are internals. The internal business should reflect the external consumer – businesses that want to speak to a diversity of consumers need to be able to have that same diversity of values, workforce and understanding reflected within its anatomy.

Many factors are measured such as structure, culture, behaviour and customer connection. All of these indicators have a significant impact consumer perception. Consider the backlash Audi faced after their Superbowl 17 ‘Daughter’ ad. Their below industry-average track record in promoting women to leadership thoroughly lost them all the goodwill the ad brought about.

Looking at Nike, it’s quite clear that though its history shows a dedication to exploring female opportunity and the employment of a gender 50:50 split – its internals were in shambles and did not reflect the external consumer it wished to pursue.

Leadership was overwhelmingly 83% male and deliberately “protected each other and looked the other way”. Promotions were alleged to be male-skewed, culture was Uber-esque and female employee attrition was extremely high with legacy talent from Nike Women and other departments leaving in droves.

Not to mention the scandal behind their head of human resources David Ayre reporting directly to the centre of this culture of male bias – head of brand Trevor Edwards, who has since stepped down amid an improper conduct review. It seems pretty clear why most women had a “deep scepticism” and routinely avoided human resources.

The reason we focus on internals first is because while it might seem obvious that getting your comms right is essential; it really is only smearing lipstick on a gorilla. The pigment is strong, but it’s still a large, hairy, angry ape – just now with a pop of colour.

Understanding why your internal system has failed to do its part in meeting new customer needs has to come first, and it takes getting leadership, specifically here CEO Mike Parker, oriented to the consumer. Getting your comms right is secondary in a gender brand audit, but is tricky nevertheless. Nike, for the most part, has generally pulled this off.

From its visual codes to semiotics to language, there has been a wonderful alignment between Nike’s master brand and Nike Women. Consider not only Nike’s external comms, but also its product offerings from its female-specific clothing, merchandise, stores, Women’s Series marathons and its training app which boasted in 2015 a community of 70 million female users.

Then there are the countless iconic campaigns from Nike Women’s ‘Inner Thoughts’ to more recent campaigns like ‘What will they think of you?’ in celebration of its innovative sports hijab for Muslim women, to Nike India’s ‘Da Da Ding’ video and its short content series ‘Margot vs Lily’. Nike has certainly been fervent in the need to create a real breakthrough relationship with women.

The Nike Pro hijab

However, revelations around Edwards’ involvement in a VaporMax shoe ad that had a woman twirling around a stripper pole prove that a lack of diversity in leadership bleeds into a disconnect with the all-powerful $28T female consumer and poorly spent marketing and advertising dollars.

Offerings too are a mixed bag – my recent trip into a local Nike store was dominated by men’s products, little knowledge around female products or needs and a distinct sense it was all just well-designed flash.

Compare that to a nearby Lululemon, where female products were dominant (though male products were also on offer) and store attendants were female, friendly and knowledgeable, with three leaping to help.

Then there’s the endearing store activations such as bespoke gift-wrapped Mother’s Day bundles and a fitting room living area with chairs, and a mantle adorned with photos of staff members with their mums – all to create a warm, friendly, comforting atmosphere.

There’s lots of lessons Nike can learn from its female-focused rivals, and a clear reason why it doesn’t have a higher uptake of that ripe market share.

Speaking of market share, this leads us to everyone’s favourite part of the gender audit – the financials. What is a brand health check without drilling down to brass tacks: How much can we make from the female market?

With businesses looking to increase growth in the female market, working out the size of your prize is essential.

In the case of Nike however, who has been actively pursuing and capturing the female market for yonks, the crisis shows how easily gender strategies can be derailed.

As the NYT piece deemed, Nike’s faltering weakness to grow the female market next to late contender Adidas signalled a significant brand blind spot. When the athleisure market is greater than your overall global revenues, and yet your women’s business is only a fifth of your yearly revenue stream and stagnating – you’ve got a problem.

Women’s categories are not only the fastest-growing segments, the female market in and of itself is the fastest growing market in the world. And Nike’s inability to address this brand issue in order to meet the very lucrative female consumer is their loss.

Although the brand is now doing a comprehensive review of its systems and policies, while also bringing in new blood and promoting once overlooked women through the ranks, much is still yet to be seen and proved.

It’s not time to just do it; it would have been better if they just did.

Bec Brideson helps businesses and brands through better understanding the power of gender differences.


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