Crisis Innovation: How Nike Became a PPE Provider amid COVID-19, and How Your Brand Can Learn From It
When conditions change, we need to adapt our game to survive … whether it is a global pandemic, shifting consumer demands, or a new competitive set. With any disruption comes an opportunity to reimagine your business. Using Nike as an example, here are four key principles to navigate disruption effectively to create positive outcomes.

When conditions change, we need to adapt our game to survive … whether it is a global pandemic, shifting consumer demands, or a new competitive set. With any disruption comes an opportunity to reimagine your business. COVID-19 has created unsolicited interference across all industries and walks of life. One bright side of this (as with any abrupt change) is we’ve seen companies step up to focus on adapting their assets to serve the greater good. In the midst of the crisis, private industry has played important roles in filling the gaps in critical supplies like Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), testing services, and food supply.

Whether you find yourself struggling to find ways to help the greater good or simply survive the impact to your business, a disruption can help illuminate opportunities to evolve. Despite never having made a single piece of PPE before, Nike answered the call to do their part in fighting COVID-19 and has now provided over 290,000 pieces of protective medical gear to healthcare workers. And in record time; the average Nike product takes 18 months from concept to production, yet the team managed to get its first PPE off the assembly line in just two weeks. Taking Nike’s success as one example, here are four key principles to navigate disruption effectively to create positive outcomes. 

1. Lead with Purpose.

Brand purpose is important now more than ever. Consumers want to support brands that have a clear sense of purpose (The WHY behind the WHAT). An authentic brand purpose is not the annual community service project your company does each year, and it’s not buried in some official manual - it’s the underlying current that moves your business each day. Nike’s brand purpose is to “Elevate the Athletic Potential in all of us.”

Nike recognized that the people with the greatest need of elite equipment were the heroes that are on the front lines of our healthcare system. While other brands would be content in simply supplying a “workable” solution in a time of crisis, that flies in the face of Nike’s brand purpose.  Nike made innovations in a foreign category because delivering a product that did not elevate the experience was simply not good enough.

2. Stop. Collaborate and Listen

One factor that has enabled Nike to be so successful building a relevant brand is its relentless focus on understanding its consumer. Many brands skip the step to Listen to Your Customer to “save” time or money and ultimately pay a premium on both down the line.

To navigate any major shift in business, it’s critical to define success and how it’s measured. For Nike, this was to be additive to the system, to deploy the best of its resources: its designers and production, not simply its capital. “We made guidelines for ourselves: Let’s think about how Nike can uniquely help . . . let’s not buy up a bunch of existing solutions that are already in the supply chain somewhere,” said Michael Donaghu, VP of Innovation at Nike.

Nike assembled groups of OHSU medical workers to gather insights to guide product development around the environment they’d be used in and the needs of the users. With rapid prototyping, they gathered iterative feedback that helped them quickly refine and improve the product. Designers collaborated with each other and leveraged Nike’s supply chain partners in rapid ideation and prototyping to quickly get to a solution. Within the first day of the project, Nike had already generated a dozen prototypes to test.

3. Just Do it (Your Way)

The question Donaghu posed to designers was, “How do we solve this problem with the supply chain we have, with materials we’re familiar with, and with the tools we have? By us focusing on materials we had, processes we had, and equipment we had, let us go quickly. If we’d changed any one of those things . . . we would have gotten it done but probably too late for the medical community.”

A common mistake businesses make when attempting to pivot is overlooking how to apply the resources and strengths they have to a new challenge. They set out to build products and processes that mimic competitors. Nike developed PPE by starting with what they had, not what they may need -- utilizing potential parts from its existing supply chain to engineer a product with pieces they knew they could obtain and processes they could execute.

4. Fail Fast, Fail Forward

Nike wasn’t afraid to fail, they accepted failure as an inevitable part of the process. With each iteration, they gathered critical feedback to improve the design. Establishing an agile feedback loop allows you to learn quickly from mistakes and address them in the rapid prototyping phase. In response to feedback from nurses, Nike collaborated with Lubrizol, the supplier of Nike Air bubbles, to optimize the clarity and visibility of the face shield. They focused on the materials, processes, and equipment they already had, and got it done quickly. “If we’d changed any one of those things… we would have gotten it done but probably too late for the medical community,” says Donaghu.

The best brands listen first and act quickly in crisis - Nike’s stronghold on the athletic-wear industry was proven again in its bid to aid healthcare workers quickly and efficiently in the beginning stages of the coronavirus outbreak. Not only was Nike able to pivot resources quickly, the end result manifested numerous improvements to outdated PPE designs and gave them the opportunity to streamline their assembly lines to adhere to social distancing guidelines.

Big brands like Nike aren’t the only businesses that can benefit from innovative thinking - agility in a time of disruption is crucial to keep any company moving forward, while also giving them an opportunity to connect with their audience on a new level.

Reach out to us at info@spectaclestrategy.com if you’re looking for fresh business perspective during this time. We love to bounce around ideas.