Mark Parker is known to compulsively sketch sneakers. In the late 1970s he was fixated on trying to create a sneaker that would give him an edge when running marathons. In 1979, his journey from sketchbook to reality began first in New Hampshire and then in Oregon with a job designing sneakers at a then little-known company. At the time, he was involved in every aspect of design — from conceptualizing and creating to seeking input from athletes and modifying product in the quest for perfection. Today, while much has changed at Nike and for Parker, he’s still sketching sneakers and working with the design team on product. But he’s also added a few more responsibilities as chairman, president and CEO of the more than $32 billion sports and lifestyle juggernaut.
In January, Parker was recognized by the National Retail Federation as “The Visionary.” This first-ever honor, recognizing an inspiring leader with a long record of spearheading change in the industry, was presented during the 2017 NRF Foundation Gala. NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay describes Parker as a “trailblazer … a leader, an innovator and a designer.”
Parker has worn numerous hats over the years, serving as vice president of consumer product marketing, vice president of global footwear and co-president of the Nike Brand. During his tenure, he has accelerated innovation and growth across the entire company. This year, he played a key design role on the Nike HyperAdapt 1.0, the first-ever self-lacing shoe.
Nike has formed partnerships with the NFL, MLB and U.S. Olympic Committee, and this year it will become the official apparel provider of the NBA. Through the Nike+ ecosystem, Parker has overseen the company’s digital investments from the Apple Watch Nike+ to the expansion of Nike.com to more than 40 countries.
NRF’s Susan Reda chatted with Parker about his views on innovation and the future of sports retailing.
Our business world is relentlessly demanding, often frantic. It’s been said that important achievements tend to result from marathons, not sprints. How do you deliver creativity when the pressure is never-ending?
For me, personally, I’ve never believed that creativity and delivering business results are trade-offs. It’s very natural to balance the two in my day-to-day work. I think it makes my decisions stronger. Knowing the business realities and what’s working in the market pushes us to make products that are more distinctive and interesting. And being creative helps solve business problems in smarter ways.
My role at Nike is to short-list the big ideas that will make the most impact for the business and clear the path for creativity. That means bringing in diverse points of view and experiences, which can set off a chain reaction — leading us to better ideas more quickly. Fostering an inclusive culture and diverse teams will always be at the heart of Nike’s ongoing creative process.
I was amazed to learn how many patents were awarded to Nike this past year — and that nearly 500 have been awarded in each of the past several years. How does Nike keep coming up with the next big thing? Is the spike in the number of patents this past year an indication of a digital shift?
Nobody in our industry invests more in R&D and protecting our [intellectual property] than Nike. Patents play an important role in that. And yes, we are definitely picking up the pace. We have over 8,000 patents and applications in our global portfolio. Digital is one element of that shift, but we see opportunity everywhere to bring new thinking to the industry and the consumer experience. With new tools like digital knitting, sensing textiles, 3D printing and generative design, product creation at Nike is becoming more precise and more personal. We’re seeing positive disruption up and down our source base — we call it our manufacturing revolution.
“Innovation today is about leading the consumer, taking them somewhere new, but at the same time it’s about listening and serving more completely.”Mark Parker
Ultimately, we all answer to consumers, and they are driving some of the biggest shifts right now. They’re more demanding than ever and that’s pushing everyone to focus on serving better. We’re leading the way through our own retail operations like our new SoHo store and we’re working with some great wholesale partners who share our passion for differentiated experiences. Innovation today is about leading the consumer, taking them somewhere new, but at the same time it’s about listening and serving more completely.
It’s been nearly a year since you announced the Era of Personalized Performance. How do you define “personalized performance” and what has been introduced since the initial announcement?
Personalized Performance is a future state that has ignited alignment across three areas of our business — innovation, experiences and our supply chain — against one mission: to serve every athlete’s individual needs.
We’ve just delivered our first adaptive product, the HyperAdapt 1.0, a shoe that offers a custom fit for every foot. But there’s a reason we called it the 1.0: Generations two and three are in the works, which will expand adaptive performance products across other sport categories. Digital connection to consumers through Nike+ is critical to this vision. Our apps link nike.com, coaching and in-person guidance — so we know your goals and what you need to get there. And the final piece is the continued development of a supply chain that delivers with speed and offers more customizable options.
What does the future of sport retail look like?
Part of our role as the leader is to continue to grow the whole market for sport. And that means knowing where the consumer is headed. That’s a challenge we have given to ourselves, and I would put out to the whole industry. I’d start with saying “.com” is everybody’s opportunity — not just brands. And that takes investment, thoughtful storytelling and new business muscles. We want to work with wholesale partners who get behind their digital platforms because there is opportunity for everyone to grow in the process.
We are also committed to connecting digital and physical retail through our own channel, DTC. We made the move long ago to integrate brand, service and commerce in a meaningful way for consumers. We brought this to life recently with Nike SoHo — a 55,000-square-foot, digitally connected store that is filled with immersive experiences. Consumers can test out products in the Nike+ Trial Zones, Nike+ members can book one-on-one appointments with trainers and stylists and, of course, it’s home to our most coveted products. This is a model we are hoping more will follow because we know there’s power in digital and physical retail coming together. Service and experience are not just for flagships, they are foundational.
“We are also committed to connecting digital and physical retail ... . We made the move long ago to integrate brand, service and commerce in a meaningful way for consumers.”Mark Parker
What do you consider your “go-to” app?
SketchBook Pro. I love it because it allows me to communicate with other designers in real-time. I can send someone a quick sketch from halfway around the world and we can just go back and forth over the designs. I still draw in my notebooks in meetings sometimes, but I love how digital technology is taking time and distance out of the design process.
You’re working with China’s Ministry of Education to transform the culture of sports and physical activity in schools across that country. Tell us about the work Nike is doing and the progress that has been made thus far.
China is critical to Nike’s future. It’s a market where we have created an entire value chain — from designing to manufacturing to shipping to serving the consumer. One of our biggest opportunities is to help develop the next generation of Chinese athletes, to move people from sports spectators to participants. This summer, we made an important commitment to get more than 2 million kids active across China. Through our new partnership with the Ministry of Education, we’ll train up to 7,000 teachers in how to deliver quality sports lessons and provide best-in-class coaching and physical education resources for more than 300 schools.
It’s part of Nike’s ongoing global commitment to getting kids active, and the need is more pressing than ever. Today’s generation of children is the least physically active in history — but we can help change that. As a company that believes in the power of sport to unleash human potential, we know that active kids are happier, healthier and more successful. So far in China, we’ve created the country’s first soccer-specific physical education curriculum for primary schools, and trained more than 3,400 P.E. teachers. Added up, Nike has already helped impact the lives of more than 800,000 kids in China.
The voice of the athlete is paramount to Nike’s vision. I’ve read that you have collaborated with Kobe Bryant. How does Nike typically work in partnership with athletes?
I do believe Nike wrote the blueprint for working with the athlete. We go deeper than just what the athlete needs — we explore how they think and what moves them. We pull out bits of inspiration from beneath the surface that can inform design, both functionally and aesthetically. That’s when the real magic happens. To do all of that takes time and, more importantly, trust.
Kobe’s the perfect example. He is obsessed with the details. He always wants the latest innovation and he is never afraid to try something new. We know we’ve done our job right when we’ve been able to translate his insights into something amazing for everyone.