Nike's video describing the story behind the Flyease went viral, being shared 27,000 times in the first week alone and garnering over 1,046,800 views in the first three weeks.
It's not just people with disabilities and their friends and family who are following this story, though. CEOs are also paying attention as Nike show once again that they know how to innovate with both their product line and marketing.
Nike has emerged as a company that is not simply doing damage control when it comes to the disability market - it is actively engaging with an underserved consumer segment that has so far been largely ignored by its competitors.
This Insight highlights the lessons to be learned from the Flyease story for businesses looking to develop a closer connection to consumers with disabilities and those with an emotional investment in their consumer-related needs.
- Creating innovative products and technologies that are easily adapted to suit different demographics (such as Nike's Flyease easy-entry shoe system) has major market potential.
- Consumers with disabilities tend to be extreme users of products and services. Design challenges from this consumer segment present valuable opportunities and inspiration to improve products and services for all consumers. This can result in new opportunities to engage with mature markets as well as create new revenue streams.
- A proactive approach to the disability market can help a business capture a significant market share, and can develop competencies and foster innovation that leads to long-term market success across the board.
- A true story with emotional appeal is currently more likely to engage consumers and the media, enlisting them to promote products and enhance brand identity by word of mouth. This is particularly the case with the disability market given the variety within its demographic.
- Consumers with disabilities are typically early and loyal users of innovative products and services. This consumer segment spends more time on-line than other segments and is more likely to make and listen to recommendations.
Just do it!
Let's start with a little primer on Nike, a well-known brand that, according to Forbes, has a global market share worth $86.2bn. Nike has consistently outsold its closest rival, Adidas by a significant margin (around 30-35 percent in recent years), in part because it has emerged from the 1990s sweatshop scandal as a company willing to acknowledge its deficiencies and brave enough to tackle its challenges head-on.
The sweatshop issue is not the only trouble Nike has faced, however. In October 2000, the company's promotion of its Air-Dri-Goat trail footwear resulted in both a serious advertising blunder and a subsequent clumsy apology that enraged the disability community for its insensitivity towards people who use wheelchairs. Ragged Edge Online magazine provides a summary of this blunder and apology.
Nike appears to have learnt from these challenges, improving not only how it goes about promoting existing products, but also in its overall engagement with consumers and the general public. Other business can also learn from these challenges and Nike's response to them by recognising that if there is a case to answer it is better to concede early and acknowledge the deficiencies rather than hoping that the challenges will go away.
The development of the Flyease is an example of Nike's direct and confident approach, although in this case Nike is not playing defense and doing damage control. Instead, it is actively engaging a consumer segment that has so far been largely ignored by its competitors. Certainly, the marketing that has accompanied the release of Flyease suggests Nike's awareness of, and sensitivity towards, the disability market has improved considerably.
By demonstrating an understanding of the disability market and a capacity to innovate for this market, Nike has the potential to significantly enhance revenue streams for years to come, both in this specific consumer segment and across the board.
Certainly, consumers with disabilities are not a diminishing market. In fact, given the number of baby boomers about to reach the age where more than half will have a disability, engaging with the disability market now is a smart move by Nike.
Doing it well – The Story of the LeBron 8 Flyease Zoom
"Your talented team of designers has thoughtfully created a shoe that, for the first time in my life, I can put on myself. When I put the shoes on every morning, they give the greatest sense of independence and accomplishment I have ever felt in my life."
This was part of the feedback given by teenager Matthew Walzer to Nike's renowned designer Tobie Hatfield following Walzer's testing of an early prototype.
Walzer was introduced to Hatfield in August 2012 after what became known as the #NikeLetter went viral. In this open letter to Nike CEO Mark Parker, Walzer explained that he was soon to attend college and his dream was to go the college of his choice without having to worry about someone coming to tie his shoes everyday. Walzer has cerebral palsy and, as a result of his condition, does not have flexibility in one of his hands which makes tying shoes laces impossible.
A long-term fan of Nike's high top basketball shoes, Walzer was seeking a closure system that replaced the need to tie laces without undermining the ankle support afforded by the high top range and which greatly assisted his ability to walk. In his letter to Parker, Walzer highlighted the wider need for this type of athletic shoe and asked Nike to consider being the forerunner in producing such a product that would "...make the difference in the quality of so many lives.".
The text of the Nike letter can be found on Walzer's blog (Against All Odds).
Unbeknownst to Walzer, Hatfield had already been busy researching and testing easy entry and closure systems for people who had trouble getting in and out of shoes and securing them. Hatfield's focus up to that point had been on creating tailored shoes for long-time employee Jeff Johnson who had suffered a stroke and for individual athletes competing in the Special Olympics.
It was Walzer's determination and the response on social media to the #NikeLetter that provided Hatfield and Nike with the impetus to create a scalable product that could be mass produced and help people worldwide. What followed was a product development journey that would last three years, with Walzer providing on-going feedback on the various prototypes.
The resulting Flyease shoe has a wrap-around zipper solution that opens the back of the shoe near the heel, making it easier to slide the foot in and out while providing sufficient lockdown and removing the need to tie laces.
The Market for the Flyease
Over 750,000 children and adults in the U.S. and 1 million within the European Union have cerebral palsy, many of whom have difficulty using their hands for motor skills such as those required to tie shoelaces.
Nike knows, however, that it is not just people with cerebral palsy who will be drawn to the technology used in the Flyease. After all, the shoe emerged from a need to help a Nike employee who had suffered a stroke. The technology used in the Flyease is an attractive option for anyone with specific hand injuries or conditions, including people with rheumatoid arthritis.
Beyond consumers with specific injuries and conditions, an even greater number of consumers contend with the challenges of daily life by making minor adjustments to the expected use of products, by using ordinary aids, such as glasses, volume controls and shoe horns, or by repeatedly incurring minor discomforts. This group of people likely accounts for the majority of the market place, and is a growing population. As such, all businesses would be wise to improve the experiences of this group wherever possible vis-à-vis their goods and services.
These challenges become more noticeable to us all with age. As Hatfield stated, rather sagely, there is one condition that affects us all eventually – old age, saying, "At some point, some people become less able sooner than others. But eventually we all become less able."
Diminishing motor skills, dexterity and physical flexibility may lead many baby boomers who remain style conscious to seek out products like the Flyease, and Nike are clearly aware that the market for easy-entry and closure footwear in other forms is largely untapped and growing.
Moreover, as the wear-testing review by Nightwing2303 (see below) demonstrates, innovations that make things more people friendly will often be very popular among those without disabilities even though they were originally inspired by the needs of disabled people. In many instances, those using accessibility provisions have no disability, they simply prefer to use them. This is most aptly illustrated by the results of a study conducted by the Office of Communications which found that 80% of television viewers in the UK used closed captions for reasons unrelated to hearing loss. These reasons included the advantages of viewing video in sound sensitive environments as well as ease of comprehension and greater clarity in cases where English is an additional language, where dialogue is spoken quickly, or where accents, background noise or technical terminology can cause difficulties with comprehension.
This is an important thing to recognise for businesses competing in markets where there is already significant consumer choice: products for people with disabilities that are more than a simple, functional response to a problem can have wider market appeal if they are produced to the same standards of design and style as products for people without disabilities.
LeBron James, the celebrity figurehead for the Flyease range, wore the new Flyease shoe during a basketball game, and WNBA All-Star Elena Delle Donne has done the same. In so doing, they have helped to demonstrate that the Flyease is a shoe that everyone can wear and that the wrap-around zipper system is not only functional, it's cool.
Nike's recipe for success – function and style
Early signs of success for the Flyease within the disability market are clear to see online, ranging from positive comments connected to #NikeLetter, to customer YouTube videos, such as Rapper Gee Major's video entitled "Thank you Nike, thank you Matthew".
Likewise, the Nike web store shows plenty of positive feedback from customers who have purchased the Flyease for friends or family members with disabilities. These comments demonstrate a high level of satisfaction with the product and a desire to let others know about the positive difference it is making to the lives of their loved ones.
Nike's greatest feat, it seems, is that this shoe is proving popular across their entire customer base. Not only is the Flyease a functional product for those struggling to independently secure their foot in a shoe, it is an example of Nike's enduring style. Indeed, popular wear-testers on YouTube have rated the Flyease very favourably without realising the design motivation behind the product, highlighting the easy-entry and closure system as a key benefit for fit and support. See for example the review by Nightwing2303 and pre-release review by Dre Baldwin
It is possible that Hatfield's easy entry and closure system is an innovation like the typewriter, the telephone, audio books and closed captioning - originally intended for people with disabilities, but eventually benefiting practically everyone.
What is already evident is that the Flyease story illustrates how listening to customers with disabilities, and actively seeking inspiration from such customers can be a valuable resource for design innovations. Customers with disabilities are more likely to be what designers refer to as 'extreme users' of products or services. These users not only provide design challenges, their adapted use of the product or service also offers possible solutions that will ultimately enhance the product or service.
In the context of the Flyease, Nike's innovation has not only resulted in a new product, it has demonstrated valuable new ways to engage with a mature market. This kind of innovation has significant cross-over applications to existing products and brings with it the benefits of being recognised as a brand that is increasingly socially conscious.
The future of Nike's Flyease
The team at Nike are now working on additional designs for these shoes that go beyond basketball, having already sent the Zoom Soldier 8 Flyease to two U.S. basketball teams participating in the 2015 Special Olympics World Summer Games.
At the time of writing, Nike has made limited quantities of the Flyease available in North America only. This is presumably to manage risk, test the market and acquire feedback prior to the incorporation of its technology in other product lines. However, frustrated would-be customer and Deputy Business Editor at The Independent newspaper, James Moore has called on Nike (in James's own open letter) to "...make your admittedly rather wonderful shoes available to Europeans and anyone else who wants them but can't currently get them where they live."
Presumably, following its success in the U.S., making the Flyease available in other markets will be a priority for Nike. As Moore notes in his open letter, disabled people "...often have to make do with clothing and footwear that isn't suitable, or spend money themselves to have items tailored or adapted." And earlier in his letter he points out that there are "...12 million disabled consumers in Britain. Their spending power is worth over £200bn. Nike are missing a trick by not making these trainers available to disabled people in the UK."
Similarly, the Flyease is currently only being marketed within the men's range of basketball shoes which has also frustrated would-be female customers as illustrated by crippledscholar's blog post.
With its apparent success in the men's range, one can reasonably assume that the inclusion of the Flyease basketball shoe within Nike's ranges for girls and women will be a priority. Connecting Elena Delle Donne with Walzer on Twitter and facilitating their meeting at the 2015 WNBA All-Star Game where she wore her pair of Flyease (from the men's range) not only provided a further media coup with an emotional story, it likely increased demand for this shoe to be in Nike's ranges for girls and women. See the online article by ESPN W for its coverage on the Elena Delle Donne and Walzer story.
Telling it well – Marketing the Nike Flyease story
As with any consumer segment, people within the disability community share a variety of needs, sensitivities and preferences. This does not mean, however, that there is a single unique or ideal way to reach, attract or satisfy consumers with disabilities.
Consumers with disabilities are no less varied or complex than any other consumer segment, a lesson that Nike, and the creative behind its promotional video for the Flyease, appears to have understood.
The point here is not simply that a marketing campaign for people with motor impairments will not be appropriate for those with visual impairments but to highlight that no particular approach is ideal for all potential customers, even if they share a similar disability.
Likewise, as with other consumer segments, people with disabilities are more likely to prefer, and thus share, relatable true stories with a clear theme over glitzy adverts with celebrity cameos.
Nike has successfully leveraged this preference and our motivation to share with its first video for the Flyease. In a departure from the more common run faster jump higher type video, the "Flyease Story" manages to show the creation of an innovative, life-improving design and emotional backstory without becoming heavy-handed or excessively sentimental.
Of course, having the star power of Lebron James in the video does not hurt, but Nike have clearly eschewed glitz and glamour in the "Flyease Story", choosing a stripped down, documentary-style aesthetic that is more down to earth and likely to appeal to a diverse range of people. This is a sensible strategy given the diversity of the populations within the disability market and their close friends and family.
The video focuses largely on Tobie Hatfield and the development of the Flyease technology. A wise choice, given that people with disabilities are typically early, enthusiastic, and loyal users of innovative products and services. Such enthusiasm is heightened when the product or service enhances capabilities, which the Flyease technology can clearly do for many.
However, where capabilities are enhanced by the product or service it is important not to over-emphasise the disability specific relevance of this feature. Put simply, consumers with disabilities prefer products and services that do not draw attention to impaired capabilities or limit such attention to that which is necessary.
Achieving an appropriate balance in this regard when marketing the product or service will help to maximise its appeal for disabled and non-disabled consumers alike. As a product, the Flyease is more than a functional response to an accessibility problem and is clearly produced to the same standards of design and style as any product within Nike's range of footwear.
As with its other products, there is no elaboration of the Flyease features on the Nike web store and consequently no disability specific reference at the point of online purchase. Instead, Nike relies on the Flyease video and Nike's substantial social media following to communicate the relevance of the Flyease innovation to the disability market.
In this context, the following three observations should be noted:
- Adults with disabilities spend almost twice as much time online as non-disabled consumers, according to a study in 2000.1
- Word of mouth recommendations from peers is the single greatest influence on the purchasing decision of people with disabilities.
- People with disabilities are also more likely to share and ask for recommendations.
People with disabilities are thus more likely to read as well as give on-line reviews; more likely to retweet recommendations and are more likely to have an active social network that shares consumer related news. Digital media should, therefore, be an important part of any marketing strategy for the disability market.
Despite the focus of the Flyease video and the departure from its usual formula, Nike's emotional branding strategy and its story telling archetype of heroism remains evident in this video. Here, the heroes are Walzer and Nike, seeking a better quality of life for others. The usual villain, our inner laziness, is also present but is far more subtle in comparison to what we have seen from Nike to date, perhaps because Nike itself has been lazy in this respect.
Within the first 40 seconds of the video Hatfield acknowledges that better performance remains the key driver at Nike but, by reflecting on what makes them passionate about performance, Nike has realised that there is a need to promote and assist better performance in terms of quality of life.
With this version of the villain, our inner laziness becomes manifest when we fail to promote, apply and expect from others the principle of universal design in the things we deliver, produce and use. The implicit message in the video is that Nike's customers are also passionate about improving quality of life for all.
The video also highlights that the Flyease initiative was driven from senior management which sends an important signal to customers and shareholders alike, that those leading the company are socially conscious and disability aware. Of course, such a signal is undermined if it transpires that other aspects of the business - such as the company's employment policies - do not meet meaningful levels of disability equality. But that is a subject for a future Insight.
Part of Nike's success is its willingness and ability to listen to consumers and to actively seek out input and inspiration from unexpected sources. It is perhaps testament to the systemic barriers faced by, and attitudes regarding, people with disabilities that an innovative and forward thinking company such as Nike took this long to listen to people with disabilities.
As Nike rolls out the Flyease technology to other products and increases its confidence vis-à-vis the disability market, one can reasonably expect to see a less subtle portrayal of the villain than that portrayed in the Flyease story if only to highlight the edge it currently has on its competitors.
As with the development of the Flyease itself, the accompanying promotional strategy demonstrates that Nike are not too big to learn new tricks and adapt to current market conditions, capturing worldwide attention and maintaining their reputation as a leading brand.
Are you inspired by the Flyease story?
Perhaps you've had your own 'Flyease moment' with your business, i.e. the realisation that a business should not only be sensitive to the consumer-related needs of disabled people, but that this consumer segment is one of its greatest assests.
If your business has had a 'Flyease moment', let us know in the comments below.
And, if you have enjoyed this Insight or found it useful, please spread the word by sharing it with others.
1. Taylor, H. 2000. The Harris Poll. #30, June 7. "How the Internet is Improving the lives of Americans with Disabilities". ↩