Emotion by Design: Creative Leadership Lessons from a Life at Nike, by Greg Hoffman – book review

I read Emotion By Design by Greg Hoffman a few months ago, and I’ve let it marinade a bit before writing this review. Hoffman was for many years the head marketer at Nike. What he doesn’t know about the possibility of brands is not worth knowing. But there is a paradox about the meaning of brands: they are at their sharpest when at their irreducible core, but they also mean different things to different people. The role of the brander is to enable a potential customer to relate to the brand in the most appropriate way. So you may react differently to this book depending on your understanding of brands, or your understanding of Nike, or your views on big consumer businesses.

Front cover of Emotion by Design by Greg Hoffman

Emotion does three things, I think. The first is that it is – of course – the story behind some of the most iconic marketing campaigns of the last thirty years. If you know your Nike campaigns then you are in for a treat; if you don’t know them, well, you will find yourself looking them up. You get a sense of the thinking and the passion that goes in to innovation and creativity. Hoffman says that he is trying to provide a playbook that can be replicated elsewhere. But most of us do not have the reach or the budgets of Nike. Necessity is the mother of invention, no doubt, but examples of scrappy creativity would have been most welcome. Oddly, an anecdote that came particularly alive involved Steve Jobs – Apple is hardly strapped for cash either – but the story related to Jobs’ attention to detail rather than the kind of creativity that is available when money is no object. And the tale of Hoffman’s early career is compelling.

The second thing that Emotion does well is talk about power in brands. Power in, not power of. Twenty years ago, Naomi Klein’s No Logo was everywhere. No Logo, if I remember correctly, rails against the corporatisation of the public sphere and ties that to the domination of capital over labour. Klein included some pretty damning material on Nike’s industrial practices. Since then, many corporations continue to do their best to roll back regulations, to treat their workers less well, to be bad corporate citizens, to exploit the areas where they live. Much of that work takes place in the shadows, but successful brands are often less able to hide. Branding can therefore be a source for good, by ensuring that brand owners are visible and to some extent accountable. Nike publishes its corporate responsibility reporting on its website and although I am not an expert it seemed as though Nike were more prepared to be open than some people in some governments. ‘Perfect competition’, the brandless space favoured by some free marketers, means that less information gets into the hands of consumers, citizens and campaigners. Hoffman is I think quite convincing on Nike’s understanding of the world in which it operates, and the relationships that the company tries to have with its communities.

Finally, you’ll be aware of the culture war’s incursion into the corporate boardroom. While there’s undeniably a huge amount of insincere woke washing, good brands understand the importance of action on, for example, equality. Hoffman cites the example of Nike’s Pro Hijab innovation in fields such as boxing and fencing. More to the point, Hoffman describes the part he has personally played as one of Nike’s first black senior leaders. He has been a trailblazer:

…I was able to accelerate my journey as a leader of not just a business and a brand but as someone who could advance the goals of diversity, equity and inclusion. I always remembered that when I found myself in a position to elevate and support others who needed to be seen and heard, especially those individuals who oftentimes were the only ones in the room who looked like themselves

The section of the book that deals with Nike’s attempts to further equality since 2011 is outstanding. It shows how organisations can change from within and that employees have a leadership role to make change. It is also a clear riposte to the asinine ‘Go Woke Go Broke’ mantra from those who seek to retain their historic privilege.

I’ll recommend this book to those who are interested in the ways in which organisations make their way in the world. It isn’t a corporate biography and can at times be technical. But its readership shouldn’t be limited to those with an interest in marketing. It’s for those who want to get things done in their workplace and empower their teams. Who want to, to coin a phrase, just do it.

Thanks to Cornerstone for the review copy

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