Q&A with Chuck Eichten, Design Director of Nike DNA


An exclusive interview with Chuck Eichten, Design Director for the Department of Nike Archives.

Chuck Eichten started at Nike as an apparel designer in 1996 and later moved to Nike Brand Design where he led the packaging, the logos, the books, the posters, the retail spaces and event experiences. Chuck is currently the Design Director for the Department of Nike Archives (DNA). In DNA he helps gather and preserve the Nike stories, and find fresh new ways of telling them again. The story of how the first best-selling Nike shoe was born of a waffle iron. How Phil Knight, when he first saw the swoosh mark, said reluctantly, “Well, I guess I’ll get used to it.” Why Michael Jordan wanted to sign with adidas out of college.

Q: Why do you think the concept of “story” is so compelling to people, and how does story influence the brand?

A: Stories are compelling because that’s how our lives unfold. Stories provide context to what happens in our lives. You have a story to accompany anything that happens in your life. When brands tell stories, it makes them feel more real, more alive, more honest…more like us.

Stories influence brands the same way stories influence our lives. Grandma tells us a story and it becomes a part of who we are. It explains something about us. Stories are something we share as families, and as employees. Our stories make us unique, and help us imagine the traits that set us apart - and likely way above all the rest.

Stories of strength, of obstacles overcome, of passion, and belief, mistakes made and hard work that paid off (maybe even when no one else believed it would), that’s something to build a family or a brand around.

Q: How should a company decide who should be in charge of the brand’s story? And what is the responsibility of that person / group in maintaining the story?

A: Passion for the stories - that’s how a company should decide who should be in charge of a brand’s story. Everybody can tell the stories, but look for the people who have the passion to be in charge of it [storytelling]. Ask them to participate in developing ways to protect, build and gather the story. There’s no other way to do it. You can’t assign it to someone who doesn’t believe in it. If the people with the passion about the brand stories don’t sit in marketing, for God’s sakes don’t give brand story responsibility to marketing.

The group charged with managing the stories has to develop a plan to maintain, gather and tell the stories within the company. If you tell the stories to your employees first, they will figure out ways to amplify those stories to others who will care, which in turn will strengthen the brand and the business.

The one other thing that group has to have is the power to protect the stories. That usually has to come from pretty far up the chain of command. Every group will have their reason for compromising the stories. Groups can, and should, tell the story in their unique way, in the way that works for their needs. But storytelling should always be considered in light of the long-term, not the short term.

Q: What are some of the best ways to continue to build a story and disseminate it, and what are some of the best channels to use?

A: At Nike, we can go new school or we can go old school - there are different solutions for different situations; different audiences. One thing we love is books - actual, physical, printed books. Most people love the feel of a book in their hands. There’s a weight and permanence and a sense of authority and old-fashioned storytelling with a book that can’t be matched.

The other thing that good stories need is good storytellers. Some people got it; some don’t. Hire good writers. Nike is known for good advertising. Most people figure it’s because we have had good ad agencies or good athletes…or even good product. Hopefully, that is all true, but good advertising (like good novels, good movies and good love letters) requires good writers. Hire the best you can find and let them develop your storytelling voice. Tell them about your company, and let them experience it. Don’t tell them how to write.

The channel you use to distribute the stories matters less when the voice and stories are absolutely compelling.

Q: How can story be used to energize internal audiences like employees and partners? How do brand stories become part of the employee belief system?

A: Every company has stories. Anyone who has ever started a company or run a company or worked at a company can tell stories about the experience.

Ask employees to share their stories. Hire a good writer to interview a bunch of employees. Everyone has stories, but there is something powerful about hearing a longtime employee tell a story about the way it was and how they made it happen before they knew any better - back in the day before they had cell phones or expense accounts…or even desks to work from.

The good old stories aren’t the only good stories. What happened yesterday? Maintain, gather and tell those stories too.

Tell the truth. Don’t make stuff up to polish the brand or fit some pre-determined company line. The best stories are the real stories. Tell a story about how your company f*&%^* up and lived to tell about it. You can change the names later if you want to go public.

Repeat the stories. Look for interesting ways to tell the stories again. Relate the old stories to the new stories. Have the chairman tell the stories. Have the CFO tell the stories. Have the Chief Maintenance officer tell the stories.

Drag out old relics. Nothing gets people engaged, and inspires them to tell their own stories, like some old funny looking thing from their past.

Brand stories become part of the employee belief system because they’re real and it’s something employees feel they can trust, no matter what corporate crap they lived through that day. Employees feel like they’re building on something solid.

Chuck will be leading a discussion about brand storytelling at the Liquid Brand Summit March 1, 2011 in Palo Alto. Meet Chuck in person, be a part of the conversation, and find out how companies are transforming to meet today’s market demands. Feel free to post any questions about the brand summit, or about the discussion here.