Even in Failing, Nike Continues to Show It’s a Leader in Innovation

(Co-authored by Finch15 Lead Analyst Jess Tsia)

nike-plus-fuelband1

One of the biggest announcements in innovation– and technology– this past week was news that Nike would be discontinuing the hardware side of its widely hyped FuelBand. The purpose of this post is not to hypothesize on why (A change in corporate strategy? A shift in the wearables marketplace? Some secret deal with Apple?); rather, we want to focus on how this is a case study in the way big companies innovate differently than small companies– and why that’s a good thing.

“Failing right” is a term more often associated with startups who are advised tofail early, fail fast, fail often. But for large companies, especially publicly traded ones, to fail right is something that can be more complex, and is therefore, rarely achieved.

It’s easy to say that downsizing the FuelBand business means Nike’s plan for it didn’t succeed. But the fact that this decision still leaves the company with a viable exit strategy (i.e., a focus on athletic and fitness software) points to how “success” can’t be so easily judged.

So what did the company do right?

Nike structured a major innovation strategy with intelligently hedged technology bets.+

The company’s Nike+ platform supports a line of multiple devices and applications. Unlike the SportWatch GPS or the Nike+ Basketball offerings, the FuelBand is for everyday fitness motivation. In launching a product for the health-conscious individual who’s not a hardcore athlete, Nike is a pioneer in the wearable space. As a result, the company has been instrumental to bringing the Quantified-Self trend closer to the mainstream market (while, of course, getting the consumer’s foot in the door with its other Nike+ products).

The actual FuelBand, however, was never actually Nike’s strong suit, as evident by the many complaints about its inaccuracy. And brand clout alone wouldn’t have been enough to save the FuelBand if if it didn’t have a killer software to back it up.

Between its partnerships and internal development team, Nike has put an emphasis on software, which, as a result, has been ahead arguably of its wearable competitors (and has led to the opening of its Fuel Lab andAccelerator Program). The company’s commitment to perfecting its software is one reason, with the exception of the Nike+ Running app, the company has barely broken into the Android market: Quality first, scale second. Investing so much in software goes against the fail-fast mantra but it indicates where Nike saw its strength (software) vs. where it wanted to explore (hardware).

This becomes clearer when looking at the motivation behind why none of the Nike+ products speak to each other (Although NikeFuel is a “single, universal way to measure movement,” the FuelBand doesn’t recognize that we’re also exercising with our Nano to provide a summary of activity across all our Nike+ devices, each of which, by the way, has its own dedicated app.). In a world where consumers want it all at the proverbial one-stop shop, this can be frustrating. This strategy does, however, make a lot of sense from a testing perspective. With Nike+ as the core underlying platform, the company is able to test and perfect iterations of its software across multiple experiences, giving each device and app just enough customization to meet different market demands.

All together, the Nike+ platform of offerings seems like a huge undertaking– and risk– by Nike. But by keeping each experience in a pseudo-silo (strategically or not), Nike allows itself to both develop and shutter faster. And it does so without infringing on its other offerings. Nike’s bet on software allows it to structure innovation in a way that enables multiple hardware plays, each of which, at the very least, helps refine and enhance the software.

Startups simply can’t afford to deliver well on such a modular experience. It would likely hurt their consumer base and culturally, they would rather go all in and fail than place multiple bets at once.

Nike made sure its lateral innovation strategy always benefits the brand.

Nike departed from being a shoe and apparel company a long time ago. The company made a strategic decision to play at a higher level that would broaden its role in fitness and sports. It’s understandably difficult for anyone to launch a new line of business when failure is always a risk. But failure isn’t absolute, not when a company, even in failing, is able to add value to its core business. So the FuelBand wasn’t right for Nike. The product still helped launch the company into a whole new territory of sports technology that it’s poised to continue pursuing.

What made the FuelBand popular certainly wasn’t the hardware. As one writer put it, “My unit broke twice days after I got it, then had to be replaced three more times after that. It didn’t matter to me, I didn’t buy a performance device I bought into a concept.” And Nike alone was able to achieve this, he continues, because it appealed to “an audience that aspires to everything the Swoosh represents.”

With brand equity and sheer size behind it, Nike has shown that it’s able to do what many startups can’t and what many large companies seemingly don’t want to risk: use its existing assets– from its supply chains to customer bases– to make a substantial bet outside of its core competency and do so in a way that even failure has its benefits.

All this points to the value of having an innovation strategy. It’s easy for small companies to talk about innovation and failing the right way. For larger companies, adopting this strategy seems more difficult, but corporations have the resources, the experience, the expertise, the customers– luxuries most startups don’t have– to make smart bets. Nike shows that really innovative companies always leave themselves a few options that allow them to land softly– and that takes planning before lift off. Failing fast may not be always be an option, but failing right always is.

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