i4cp Next Practices Now Conference: An Interview with Greg Hoffman

Greg Hoffman, Founder & Principal of Modern Arena, former Chief Marketing Officer at Nike, and author of the terrific book Emotion by Design: Creative Leadership Lessons from a Life at Nike. He had a major hand in crafting Nike’s singular brand and was instrumental in its most high-profile breakthrough campaigns.

Greg will present on Emotion by Design at the upcoming i4cp 2023 Next Practices Now Conference in March, which helps human capital leaders think and act differently when it comes to their people and initiatives.

Greg sat down with i4cp in advance of that session—you can watch the interview above or read the transcript below.

In a nutshell, what do you mean by “emotion by design?”

Emotion by design is this ability for brands to create stronger emotional connections between their products and people, and their brand and their audiences. And I really lay out a way to achieve that through leaning into specific human characteristics that are oftentimes responsible for driving those practices within a brand that lead to the ability to have more meaning in the world of the consumers and customers that you serve.

That means that you're serving not only the rational functional needs through your products, but you're also serving the emotional needs and building an emotional value over time, because the value you can create through emotion is infinite, right? And I think that's what separates the great brands from the good brands.

In your book, you outline your three favorite guiding principles. What are those, and why do these principles stand out to you?

Well, first and foremost, this is about creative leadership lessons forged by life at Nike. And so when I talk about creative leadership, I often go by the mantra “creativity as a team sport,” and oftentimes people don't think they're creative. You grow up with this notion that if I can't draw, I'm not creative. Well, that is very dated, right?

I believe that creativity is both the conceiving of an idea and applying that idea, and of course the application of ideas. Yes, it's oftentimes reserved for those who have a deep fluency or experience within a particular field architecture such as graphic design or creative writing.

But when it comes to bringing ideas to life through ideation and imagination, well, we're all capable of doing that, we can all dream of better futures. And so really laying out this idea of creativity as a team sport of how you create an inclusive work environment that really allows people to play their roles within that creative problem-solving process.

Being on the field together, building on each other's life experiences, perspectives to create innovation. That's quite breakthrough.

The second point is this idea of “dare to be remembered.” How do you tell stories and create experiences as a brand that will never be forgotten?

You know any great story deserves to be remembered, if you will. And so here I lay out this idea of creating your brand persona or brand personality, and of course, that not only relates to articulating the traits and values that make the brand what it is and how you can best express that to the world, but it also relates to those of us as leaders and our leadership, persona, and personality.

And how do you articulate that, and make sure you live those values and traits within the workplace and life itself right?

And then, if I were to pick one more, it's this idea of “leave a legacy,” not just a memory, and I believe brands and leaders have the ability to not only create incredible brand strength, drive accelerated revenue growth, but also create a more inclusive and better future for everyone at the same time.

In the book, I really start to lay out some of the different moments that really shaped my own journey to become chief marketing officer at Nike, and at the same time some of those iconic campaigns, products, and experiences that we brought to the world that really broke down the barriers that oftentimes prevent certain communities from being able to engage with your inspiration and innovation.

So I’m so optimistic about the future, because I believe we can all practice emotion by design, and it can make us not only better at business, but better leaders for the teams that we have the privilege of leading.

Our research shows that more employees than ever want to work with companies that share their political perspective, and I’m sure you’ve observed that in practice. When we released that research we actually cited Nike’s Colin Kaepernick campaign as an example. How do you recommend business leaders think about making bold brand statements in this politically divisive climate?

Yeah. Well, I do believe we're in a moment in time where indifference isn't an option, if you will, and because at the end of the day your employees, first and foremost, are feeling a lot of these world events right now, such as the war in Ukraine.

I think an employer has to have empathy to understand that. A healthy brand starts with those who create it right? So, having a point of view on, or at least an acknowledgment of what's happening in the world is Step One.

Part Two is being able to connect what you sell with what the world needs in a given moment in time. If you can't make that connection in terms of—in my case it's the world in an arena of sports, so I always had to make sure that we could speak through the platform of sport and the athletes voice to address a particular cause. If that wasn't logical, and it didn't make sense, then it probably wasn't the time to take that stand or take that risk.

I always believe that authenticity is the currency in which we lead, in which a brand shows up in culture, and so you have to decide what is the best way to communicate your values around a particular moment in time, sometimes on a polarizing issue. But you have to do it in a way that reflects why you exist in the world. What is your mission and vision and values? And can you connect it to the very services and products you create?

And storytelling does not have to be a default. There are so many ways a brand or a company can support a particular moment or community or cause, and it's just this idea that brands have this incredible opportunity, because, unlike governments and institutions sometimes brands have the ability to make people feel. It's back to that idea of emotion, and you can stir those emotions and move people to action in an accelerated way.

Brands create not only moments, but the great brands create movements, and that's that idea of leave a legacy, not just a memory.

When most people think of Nike’s brand, or brands in general, they think of the consumer brand—and your philosophy is about creating a strong emotional attachment between products and people. What does that look like in the context of creating a bond with employees or potential employees?

It's the same same thing. I think any great product design starts actually with empathy, meaning you spent the time with the subject to peel back the layers and really figure out what was the deeper insight? What was the need that you needed to satisfy that you can't see on the surface?

And so I often talk about this idea of see what others see, but find what others don't. When you think about leading a team or working with your teammates, you have to get beyond the surface and understand that the world they're living in every day isn't necessarily the same one that you're living in, and oftentimes you can't see what's on the surface in terms of what they're experiencing in the workplace.

It starts with this idea of being an empathetic leader, getting beyond the simple observations and assumptions, and having more curiosity and empathy for those around you. It’s only going to create greater team chemistry, greater collaboration, and a more inclusive work environment. And then this idea of the courage and risk taking… Well, that's paramount to creating product innovations or brand-defining campaigns.

But it's up to you as a teammate or a leader to create the type of environment where people feel that they can take risks that they can fail forward. That failure actually oftentimes lead. This leads to success down the road, but it's up to leaders to create an environment where people don't have to ask for permission to use their imagination. It becomes increasingly difficult in this digital world that we live in where things are quite automated.

I’m in the business of trying to create a more human future. And I think leaders within their own teams and their own HR practices have to figure out that balance between uniformity and creating programs that cut across, but also tailoring everything to the individual. What's that magic ratio in terms of leading across, but also leading down into the individual creative eccentricities of each player on your team?

I think that's the power we have as leaders, and that goes into creating inclusivity and diversity within the workplace, which, by the way, leads to greater innovation, greater creative solutions, which finally leads to greater business growth and new revenue opportunities.

And finally, what would be your one recommendation to both HR and marketing leaders that would help them work more closely together and realize profound benefits in the marketplace?

Really, really important. I had the good fortune to work with so many different great HR leaders, and it's there's an art and a science to it. Of course, it's having a collaborative relationship between marketing and the HR groups that allow you to master the fundamentals as a leader and your employees as well. What are the baseline behaviors that we want to act upon and embody within our culture?

At the same time, it’s also looking at opportunities to grow each. I think I talked about this before that evergreen programs and capabilities will only serve us so far. But then, working with my partners, it was always great to create individual plans for teammates. I think within marketing, especially when you're trying to, you know, introduce innovative ways to engage with your audience, to tell stories, to create experiences, and really define aspirational visions of the future that you're inviting your customers to, you have to allow people to bring a little bit of themselves into the workplace.

Playbooks don't always provide all the answers for this kind of thing, and that's where the partnership is really great. I'm not a big believer in transactional relationships and partnerships with a brand and a consumer as well as with an HR Team, and the different disciplines and divisions that they serve. So, figuratively speaking, we're sitting together on the field of play, right?

And that is why I think we're able to drive both. Not just the science of building a great team, leaders and brand, but also the art and the imagination required, and the ideation and brainstorming to kind of grow together, I think this is really important. You'll hear me say this quite a bit: it is absolutely a team sport, and we're on the field of play together.