Mixing Board Studio Session: Katie Dreke on the Modern Brand & Human Connection
“Brand identity is so much more beyond color and font choice. We’re getting into how does that impact the haptic feedback in the app as it sits in your hand and you’ve done something? Does it shake? Does it make a sound? What is that sound? What happens on the screen? And what are the ways in which the app experience returns my data back to me in a way that is valuable?”
Mixing Board community member Katie Dreke has spent more than twenty years guiding all flavor of traditional and experimental brand and innovation work on behalf of the world’s largest and most influential global brands, including spending seven recent years inside of Nike and working with the likes of Coca-Cola, Honda, Starbucks, REI, adidas, ASICS, Qantas Airlines, Tiger Beer, Nintendo, DHL, Microsoft, and many others.
Here are excerpts from this week’s Studio Session between Katie and Mixing Board founder Sean Garrett. Among other topics, Katie and Sean talk about making change happen at Nike, what ‘brand’ really is today and the role employees in shaping connection to outside audiences.
SG: What is it like working inside Nike … what’s a day like?
KD: Being at global headquarters in Beaverton, which is just outside of Portland, it’s a really interesting phenomenon. As you can imagine, the culture at Nike is really strong and so immediately upon arrival, you can start to feel yourself being molded a little bit.
Sport is everywhere. There’s gyms that you can work out in but you’re also surrounded by these giant football fields, there’s leagues going on in the basketball courts, sport is a part of every offsite, so just sport, sport, sport. Which for me, was great — I grew up playing a lot of sports. I played pretty competitively, continued playing a little bit in college, intramurals and stuff like that, and I’m just generally a fan of what sport provides, not just the human body but the human spirit and why it does for community.
I felt like a lot of the work I had done prior to my arrival at Nike really prepared me well. I had also worked for a time in global roles with adidas and so I was familiar with the industry from the European point of view. But upon arrival at Nike, you immediately know that you’ve landed in a really special place.
All I can speak to is my own personal experience. I think everyone’s experience is similar in some ways, but also different. It’s just a massive company.
My personal experiences were primarily in brand and also within the new DTC structure that was started maybe three or four years previous, during one of the restructurings. And Nike is also a company that re-orgs a lot so I had six different jobs in my seven years at Nike, which I think is maybe a little atypical. I think there’s plenty of people who join and have joined with certain subject matter expertise and are there to turn it up to 11. And I came into the brand innovation team and I had maybe what could be a naïve assumption that, that’s where I would spend the next five or 10 years. And instead, actually I got moved around a lot.
And at first, it was a little disarming because it wasn’t my plan and it wasn’t what I thought was going to happen but as soon as I let go of that and allowed the changes to happen, I got a chance to touch a lot of different parts of the company. Is it the same everywhere across different departments? Is it the same even in international offices? I’d say no. I worked in the Japan office for a bit. It was Nike but it also wasn’t, it was also very Japanese so that was also fascinating to see how the brand had elasticity across cultural divides as well.
Emphatically, it’s a really intense environment. People are very passionate about lots of things like, “We’re going to obsess this” is a term that is used a lot. I have, actually, a pair of Nike shoes that were given to me at an offsite that have the word “obsessed” emblazoned on the tongue. Everything was really thought very intensely about.
SG: Your last role there was working on Nike Women. Tell me about what you did there and given the social backdrop and given the things going on — the emergence of the WNBA, the emergence of a lot of different hard conversations happening in women’s soccer — what Nike’s role is or what Nike’s role isn’t.
KD: I have strong feelings about how sport has, in some ways, given a lot to women but also not given enough. And it was incredibly exciting to be at that crossroads at a brand that can change and impact culture in such an important way on something that I cared about so much.
I was part of Nike Women brand, but changed the function of what brand meant. Which meant I was leading a team of six people that were working really far upstream, looking at the three to five year time horizon in front of us with the product teams, bringing the innovations they were working on from sportswear to yoga tights to sports bras, whatever the product might be, and usher it into the marketplace landscape with much more collaboration than I think had been done historically.
I think like you see in typically a lot of companies, there’s an innovation team that makes a product, they chuck it over the fence to marketing and say, “Go sell it!” And Nike had suffered from a certain degree of those things in the past as well, and so this new restructure was meant to have brand further upstream. And largely, it was because innovations were hitting the marketplace and we were finding ourselves in situations where it’s like, “Oh, well if we had given more time, we would’ve created an app for that or we would’ve shot a documentary or we would’ve, could’ve, should’ve.” We didn’t have enough time to impact the market in a brand innovation way or a marketing innovation way.
So that’s what we were doing, we were doing a lot of research around where sport was going for women, the rise in power of women, leagues of women. We were creating research lenses for the organization and presenting internally. I had some really smart colleagues who were really busy basically doing a lot of socializing of the work, how it could impact product design, but also how it needs to impact the DTC environment. And hey, guess what? Women also have children. Those children’s feet grow really fast. Back to school is a financial boom for us every year in the fall because moms are buying shoes but we don’t actually talk to moms in our marketing, we need to change this. So there were all these future runway pieces of work that we were doing.
And then even talking with the product group to say — in the future, not too distant future, like right now, a lot of our competitors are taking back sports bras, for example and there’s a recycling campaign or on Earth Day. We can’t even do that because we don’t have a bra that can be actually decommissioned very well. Let’s design one now. And so that was one of the projects we were kicking off with the product team.
We would then get closer to the marketplace and hand off and transition into a DTC focused team that would take everything that we had offered them and they would then make it brightest and most beautiful in our owned and operated spaces, digital and physical, and link it back to membership and our membership program.
So all that was to say, a lot of the work that I was doing was still in the realm of brand and marketing, but it was thinking about it earlier, more systematically, more across the enterprise. And the language we used to organize ourselves and then to explain it to the rest of our colleagues and our business unit what we were doing was — we are tuning the Nike ecosystem to the female athlete. Nike is an ecosystem of things, physical spaces, digital spaces, products, athletes, communications, editorial, partnerships, et cetera, that is largely, by default, tuned to the male athlete. It’s the default of sport and it has been the default of Nike for many decades.
And you’ve probably heard the phrase “pink it and shrink it” where a lot of sports brands are guilty of taking something really rad that they’ve made for the male athlete and then going, “Oh, we could probably sell this to women too so let’s make it smaller and pink and stick it on the shelves.”
I have a ton of respect for the work that Nike’s done over the last several years where they’ve really put some incredibly talented footwear and apparel designers and product creationists who are women in the front of the line to develop product for women and through the lens of women so that we could tell an end to end story, designed by women, for women.
SG: When you do that tuning process, how do you know when you’ve gone from the total static — ‘pink it and shrink it’ — to the point of clarity where there is that connection that you’re trying to achieve with an audience as significant as women?
KD: I think the most demonstrative and clear example was actually the maternity collection. We had never created a body of work from scratch, a collection of products custom built for the pregnant body before. We knew that there were women out there who were pregnant who were still using our equipment and our apparel primarily, just maybe buying a size up and making it work, but we had never custom built for that life stage.
And a lot of the strategic work that my team was developing was about looking at the woman through the lens of life’s stages as opposed to sport verticals. And recognizing that those sport verticals, meaning running, football, basketball, stuff like that, would mean something different to a teen who was just getting introduced to sport or a child, to a young woman in university who’s maybe playing for fun in a fun social league, to a professional who’s trying to stay in shape, to a mother, someone who’s going through pregnancy.
And so we have this line at Nike, “if you have a body, you’re an athlete” but it was almost like we were saying, “unless it’s pregnant because we’ve got nothing for you.” And that’s the language that our team was putting into these provocative decks internally, we say, “if you have a body, you’re an athlete,” but we’ve got nothing for the woman during this incredibly important moment in her life.
My team deserves a ton of credit, this was even a multi-year research project that was going on long before I even arrived. I was just the lucky one who got to harvest and package up a lot of these insights, and make them sharp and actionable in the organization. But we were able to say, “The research actually shows that when you’re pregnant, your heart beats more volume of blood and your lungs are asked to push oxygen through two bodies, not just one. And physically when you measure, it’s what an athlete would be doing during their race and she’s doing it for nine months.”
We were able to then repackage the female body as the ultimate athlete because of the strain and the stress it’s putting on your body to be pregnant, and what you’re actually doing is not only a physical challenge, but you’re also creating another human body at the same time and it does deserve from Nike the best equipment we can offer because we need this person to stay with sport. If they were with sport beforehand, we would need them to stay in sport and not drop out during pregnancy.
We also need people who’ve never encountered sport before to use sport to get through pregnancy and most importantly, we want them to stay with it afterwards and give it as a gift to their children and make sure that the whole family is engaged in sport because we recognize the woman was the linchpin. So when you package it up that way, it just becomes this manifest destiny. We absolutely need to be here. We not only have the right, but we have the responsibility to be here so now let’s create the product.
SG: So when you’re talking about that connection to the human, I think this is obvious with direct to consumer, that brand work is about connecting a company to human beings and making those human beings have some emotional reaction to them. But obviously, there’s a lot in between those lines. And it feels like before the last 10 years, people ran advertising campaigns. In the last 10 years, that’s evolved very quickly. We have things like social media, we have this living, breathing thing — this connection. Can you talk about, especially at Nike or any other company, how that’s evolved? Obviously, it led to things like the maternity collection but what is even branding and brand marketing today?
KD: You’re right. The tools and tropes and weapons of mass branding have changed so dramatically. It’s not that things like out of home or TV aren’t important anymore, they absolutely are. They just have more friends in the toolbox. There’s more things to be considering.
Working at Nike was interesting because they didn’t start as a tech company, per se, but they are now really weaving technology deep into the DNA level of the organization to function much more like a tech company. But working with a company, like right now with Klarna, for example, they are a tech company that is also looking into physical spaces and real life community members and these kinds of things.
And both of them need to consider, whether they started there or whether they backed into it or whatever, things like, “Hey, we have an app and there’s an algorithm that’s going to run in the background behind this app that’s going to ask people for data and it’s going to use that data for certain aspects of personalization and customization and service.” How do you design that app and the algorithm that runs underneath it so that it feels like the brand?
Brand identity is so much more beyond color and font choice. We’re getting into how does that impact the haptic feedback in the app as it sits in your hand and you’ve done something? Does it shake? Does it make a sound? What is that sound? What happens on the screen? And what are the ways in which the app experience returns my data back to me in a way that is valuable? If the app is asking me 20 questions as I log in and set up my profile, and none of those questions seem to be doing anything about how the app understands me, that’s a huge miss. That’s a pothole in the road and it will create dissonance in the relationship that you’re trying to develop with that consumer.
So there’s so many more touch points to consider, and there’s also blind spots to figure out. When we were getting ready to launch that maternity collection, we were honest enough with ourselves to recognize we’re not experts in this audience. This audience, we can’t put them into any of our familiar boxes of, “Oh, they’re a runner” or “they’re a basketball player.” They might be, but they’re also pregnant. They’re women going through a really unique experience, and although a lot of women go through it, it’s unique to each individual. Not every woman goes through it so it’s not even ubiquitous across the gender. So how do we understand this life stage of working to becoming pregnant, being pregnant and then also the phase afterwards where basically, your whole life is transitioning into a different rhythm?
So in an effort to understand that, there’s a team inside of Nike called Valiant Labs. They do a lot of exploratory research, they call it hunting zones, where they go and look for ways in which we can serve athletes differently or better than we ever have before
The women’s business unit worked with Valiant Labs to create an app called Nurture. Nurture was launched into the marketplace a good six to nine months before the collection. And it was unbranded because we didn’t want the Nike brand to influence people’s expectations or anything about what might be going on inside of this app. We created a community of women who are going through the pregnancy life stage, and we wanted to see — how did this community interact with each other? How often did they communicate? What types of content resonate? What are the sorts of needs that they had? There was an Instagram account where we would post communications and see if we could recruit more members.
We discovered so many really interesting things about this audience and this group, that we were then able to pull into, not only just the launch of the collection, but the way in which we were going to, again, tune the Nike ecosystem to not just the female athlete but the female athlete who is currently pregnant.
And how is that style of communication and the needs and desires of that unique consumer going to impact the buy and flow? How is that going to impact the editorial content we create inside in the app? Because we did create yoga workouts and audio guided walks inside of the running app, all those kinds of things to signal to this new consumer, “You’re welcome here. We see you, we have what you’re looking for.” We probably would have felt timid and shy and we might’ve waited to do those things unless we had done the due diligence of actually getting out there and creating a community.
The app is actually no longer available on the app store. Once we got to launch, the appetite to keep it alive longer, it just felt like we didn’t really need it anymore and so the community decided they were going to take it over and run it themselves and so we just left it available to those who already had it on their phones, so you can’t find it anymore. But it was an incredibly powerful example of, if you don’t know how your brand should represent itself to a completely new audience, you can find out and then incorporate that into your suite of expressions of how the brand shows up in the world.
SG: So you’re now consulting and talking to a whole bunch of different companies, and startups might think, “Well, you came from Nike and Nike is the paradigm of branding, what can we do? But what would you tell startups they could do that’s even better than Nike when it comes to connection with consumers?
KD: Well, a brand that is the size of Nike — the things that made us insecure, I guess, on the inside were our worries that people would see us as too big, people would see us as too far away, that we wouldn’t be able to go fast enough and be nimble enough. And some of that is just part of being a big organization. Some of that is a little bit of the legacy of the Nike brand, the “just do it” celebration of the ultimate elite athlete kind of thing doesn’t resonate the same way in consumer minds and in the landscape that it did in the ’80s and ‘90s.
Newer brands, younger startups, they have a chance to be able to run at the pace of culture. They have an opportunity to be co-created, which is something that’s really hard for a large, established brand with decades behind it. There’s also people who’ve invested their long term careers and there’s waves and fixed objects that can be hard to evolve. But when your brand is young and new as a start up, you’re still forming and there’s an appetite in consumer culture now to play a role in the formation of a brand and there’s something really interesting there about command and control.
I think branding of old is really command and control, create something at the global level, detonate it around the world, make sure there’s consistency. For a younger brand that is maybe not global yet and doesn’t have to worry about that, you can be less in control. You can co-design iteratively and let your customers have some skin in the game, which is harder to do at the larger end.
I think when your ecosystem is more in its nascent period where you’re designing, you can decide which parts of it are going to behave differently than the expectation. And you can actually show up on the scene and at launch or as you’re disrupting a space by behaving in a way that is totally unexpected. That’s actually some of the work that I’m working on with Klarna right now, is this buy now, pay later space. It’s fairly youthful. Klarna itself is 15 years old but the space, this particular product line is useful and it’s growing rapidly and they’re getting a lot of other folks jumping in the arena. I’m working with them specifically on their membership program called Vibe.
Banks and financial services all look almost identical when you look at how their points based loyalty programs works and with Vibe, we’re zigging, and it’s because they still have a youthful center at this brand and the membership program’s only been in market for a year. It’s still really young and we can say, “No, the Klarna brand is so exceptionally unusual. It deserves to have a loyalty program that people can’t anticipate the way that they could from another provider.” So that’s some of the fun things I think you get a chance to do and you have an advantage of when you’re maybe starting out.
SG: When you’re starting out, a lot of companies struggle with, who do I hire first? Who handles this stuff? We have this idea, we have this thing we’re trying to build but now we have to think about our marketing and our brand, our comms. At a high level, how do you start designing that organization? When is too early and when is too late?
KD: Every time I speak to a startup, they know that their brand matters, but they’re not marketing people themselves. So they’re really trying to get a much more firm grasp on how long can I delay the need to develop this thing? Which often, a marketing organization can sometimes be perceived as an overhead piece so, as a financial business person, I’ve tried to delay the development of this muscle but how long is too long? So that’s where I think some of these really interesting business models like Mixing Board come in.
I’ve been talking to a couple startups where they’ve said, “Can we have you be our CMO or our VP of this or that at a fractional amount of your time? We need someone of your expertise level, we want your eyes on what we’re doing, we want you to bring in the right, creative people at the right time but we can’t afford you full-time. Could we afford you at a third of your time or a quarter of your time?”
So in a way, you become an advisor and a guide and a connector because at least folks, my peers, we’ve been around the block, we’ve worked at agencies, we’ve got connections around the world, we know good writers and filmmakers and all the necessary skills you’d need to express a brand anywhere in the world. And so it’s just a matter of having the strategic brain and the confidence to say, “Here’s how we’re going to do it. We’re going to start here and then we’re going to roll out to here, and these are the markers we’re going to hit and here’s how we’re going to measure ourselves to make sure that the next ignition point that we land at, we’re truly ready for.”
Some of it depends on the white space you’re marching into. If you’re a startup and you’re going into a space where all your competitors look really beautiful and are presenting themselves exceptionally well, you don’t want to show up in your handmade clothes. You need to bring your A game. That doesn’t mean it has to be expensive, there’s lots of ways to be creative about this, but it does mean that you need to be thoughtful.
SG: The role of the employee has also evolved a great deal in the last 10 years. How do you think about their impact on brand or connection to customers? Maybe how has that dynamic changed in a way that where if you’re really smart, you could really leverage them into being some of your really key team members even if they have nothing to do with marketing?
KD: Yeah. Absolutely. You can sense when a brand really understands its employees and values its employees, and when they don’t. And there’s great legends from all kinds of brands, from Nordstrom to Lego, even at Nike. At Nike, there’s a group of people called EKINs. It’s Nike spelled backwards. And they’re a group of people that understand the product better than anybody else. They get it first, they’re trained on it, they travel around the world and they explain it to all the retail employees everywhere. They have their own studio on campus, they shoot video and podcasts where they basically just celebrate the performance technologies, the style and innovations, the materials. Many of them have the word EKIN or the Nike swoosh tattooed on their body. Some of them move on from EKIN status to other roles inside of the company. Some of them stay EKIN their entire time at the company.
I was walking around Tokyo when I lived there, working at Nike and I saw an EKIN sticker on a light post and I knew it was an EKIN sticker because it was the numbers on the telephone, that if you were to type in “Nike” on a telephone keypad, it’s like a code.
SG: Wow. This is freaking me out.
KD: I know! It’s exciting and maybe a little, I don’t know, disturbing but this is something that the company has fostered since the beginning. And there’s a proud army of people who have either had or still held that role.
I listened to Bailey’s Studio Session on community, and there’s a lot of really interesting Venn diagram stuff in what she’s thinking about and what I’m thinking about in how the brand expresses itself. Because who the brand is and how it functions in the world bleeds over into how it relates to its internal community of its employee base or even communities inside the employee base like EKINs.
And also how it amasses groups of people into more organized communities like a membership program or a loyalty program like Nordy Club and things like this. All the way to more passion based co-shared communities like some that she described around Reddit and stuff where there’s actually a lot of power that sits in some of those external communities, and they can impact from the outside in some of the decisions that are happening, some of these in the staffing decisions at companies.
And there was an interesting point that came up in that talk that I think is really potent — which is the alignment of the external community and the internal community, and the impact it can have on executive leadership and where the company goes in the future, what it makes and its impact on the world.
SG: It gets interesting when you zoom all the way into the inside of an app or the meeting inside of a company and you see how all the small parts are interconnected as you zoom out, the zoom out to a broader constellation of employees, customers, allies, partners, and so on.
KD: Yeah, it’s like thinking about the brand as the operating system of the organization. The OS needs to be branded. The OS behaves in certain ways, shows up in certain places, manifests physically or digitally and is present in a meaningful way at these crossroads. I don’t think that brand has always been allowed to function in that way, although I would say as someone who spent over 20 years in ad agencies writing manifestos and creating beautiful television ads for Super Bowls and all that kind of stuff, or rebranding corporations — that’s where a lot of the strategy brains have been playing for a long time. Trying to figure out at what point can we actually get the OS of the organization to behave the way that the branding says we do or should?
We don’t want to be a veneer. Branding can’t, due to transparency and expectations from customers, especially Gen Z who’s coming up fast and coming in hot in all the ways that I like. We cannot be a veneer anymore. That is an old game, that’s an old skill set and it’s dying out. It’s really about a branded OS that affects, in a good way, and tunes, in a good way, every aspect of the way the company functions, including who sits on your board and who has executive leadership rights and privileges and how you treat your partners.
Previous Studio Sessions
- David Swain (former Instagram head of comms) on Starting and Staying Strategic in a Big Comms Job
- Obama Comms Aide Eric Schultz on ‘Going Direct’, Liars, WH Briefings & More
- Todd Hansen (former head of programming and strategy at SXSW) on the Future of Events and the Next SXSW
- Bailey Richardson (early Instagram employee) on Building Communities With Intention
- Amanda Atkins (head of internal comms and culture at Slack) on a New Era for Internal Communications
- Cody Keenan (President Obama’s chief speechwriter) on taking risks and embracing controversy
— — — — — — — -