Cathy Sparks

Nike might stand for all things active, but it’s also a very buttoned-up brand — with marketing, stores and employees all carefully coordinated to deliver one pitch-perfect message.

Until recently, that was branding 101. Control the message, keep it pure and build its power. But that has all become more complex with the megaphone that is social media giving more currency to stories that are individual and not necessarily so perfect.

And so Nike, which used its control and discipline to build a $39 billion brand, is ever so slightly loosening up and trying to learn a little along the way.

Nike by Melrose is a big part of that. The 4,600-square-foot store, which opened last summer in Los Angeles, is focused on building connections with customers, capturing and using data.

It has a new approach that will ultimately inform how the larger Nike operation works.

Cathy Sparks, global vice president and general manager of Nike direct stores and service, said the normal branding guidelines adhered to by Nike’s 40,000 employees were lifted for the small concept store.

That means associates there don’t have to wear head-to-toe Nike at work and are free to promote the brand through their own social channels.

The store manager, for instance, is active on Instagram in her role.

“The beautiful thing about Nike is our brand marketing offense is so incredibly strong and is a very loud voice at our table as we build these experiences together and rightly so,” Sparks said. “The brand protection that they place on every decision is huge.”

But Nike-oriented social posts by individual employees is tough. Everyone knows Gen Z (and everyone else) is communicating through social media, but no one’s quite sure just what younger employees will say online.

Sparks said they train the employees and that the test has been working.

“We’re late to the game here, this is just about getting the company comfortable with how we’re doing this,” she said.

The Melrose store also has a “two swoosh” rule, meaning employees wear Nike shoes and then one other piece from the brand.

“Getting to see the way they put their looks together — I honestly think that’s why we sell half the product we do in that store, because of how they’re modeling it,” Sparks said.

It’s a group of fewer than 30 store employees, but Sparks said they are activating Nike memberships like no other. They’re a sign of new things at Nike.

“Consumers expect more from brands in a digitally led world,” Sparks said. “They want to know we’re listening to them, caring about them. We need to build deep connections that last a lifetime. The consumer journey is changing every day. When we know more about our consumers, we can serve them better. They expect us to know them and to provide customized experiences and curated product recommendations.”

All of this is part of Nike’s effort to stick to its mission “to bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world.”

And Nike views everyone with a body as an athlete.

“We tell our ourselves that when our customer buys our Nike product, they’re not just buying Nike running shoes or a great pair of tights or a really cool fleece, they’re buying a little bit into their great potential,” Sparks said.

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