The Paradox Process is a model for brand development that when
applied works inside many brands. Its primary purpose is to get
insight into consumer pain points or contradictions that need
solving, and it works by using contrary perspectives to arrive at
It worked exceptionally well at Nike where I was the Director
of Marketing Insights & Planning from 1986 to 1996.
Nike used this model to overcome a major blind spot and brand
positioning challenge that it had in addressing the women’s
sports markets in the late 1980’s. Up until that point Nike’s
advertising had focused only on male professional athletes. The
Nike Women’s Campaign changed this by using everyday people,
identifying with the authentic inner voice of female fitness
enthusiasts. The Paradox Process helped us overcome the situation,
reversing a 60%, ten-year decline in sales to women, and putting
the brand on a 400% growth trajectory over the next five years. To
apply the model to your brand, read on.
Contradiction: Stage 1
Begin with what you know about current conditions; perhaps
sales are stalled, or market share is slipping. Begin a process of
honest self-assessment by listing what you believe the
contradictions or opposing forces may be responsible for the
marketplace adversity your brand is experiencing.
List what you know and what you don’t know, what you think
you’re doing right and what your intuition tells you that you may
be doing wrong. List the facets of product designs or product value
propositions that might be perceived as bad or good, fun or
serious, emotionally engaging or prosaic and boring. By examining
the opposing charges, you’re framing hypotheses that can be
explored for validity in Stage 2.
Paradox: Stage 2
A paradox is a situation that consists of two ideas that are both
true but which appear to be opposite to one another. This seems
impossible, but it actually is true or possible, which is why
it’s a paradox rather than a contradiction. Paradoxes in
marketing life pose an invitation to consider whether the two
apparently opposing forces can be reconciled.
For example, the paradox that Nike was grappling with was how to
interpret its brand mantra, authentic athletic performance, for
women who did not resonate with the macho, competitive language and
Having lost 60% market share in footwear sales to women, Nike
leaders knew that blind spots and limiting beliefs were afflicting
our brand fortunes, and we used this as inspiration to study the
problem using depth research. We asked ourselves how we could
respond, what we could learn about ourselves and how could we
uncover what women really wanted.
Revelation: Stage 3
If you entertain a paradox long enough in your mind, if you mull
the apparent contradictions over long enough in meditation, you may
come to a flash of insight, a revelation, which points the way
forward for a new solution that could only be found through your
struggle with the opposing forces. The revelation is often a far
superior solution to what came before, because it reconciles the
opposing forces to arrive at a higher level of truth about the real
needs of the market. We gained four key revelations by going
through this process.
1. Cultural Blind Spots
In exploring the private thoughts and feelings of Nike leaders,
we discovered many limiting beliefs about the choices we were
making. We found, for example, that the hard core, male,
testosterone driven competitive sports ethos that pervaded Nike
culture was so widely held that it wasn’t even being discussed.
We were like fish in a fishbowl, not recognizing the cultural
waters we were swimming in. Consequently, we had developed
hypotheses about sports attraction, motivation, product performance
needs, and consumer attitudes that came from competitive males, and
when we tested their attractiveness with female fitness
enthusiasts, lo and behold,
we discovered women had very different ideas about all of these
things. Our massive blind spot was exposed, and it instantly
became the elephant in the room that we could no longer ignore.
2. Design Principle Limitations
Another limiting belief was exposed concerning shoe design. Nike
designers at the time understood – that is, they assumed – that
sports shoes needed to provide durability, high performance
cushioning, and exceptional lateral support stability. The upper
materials therefore needed to be tough to stand up to Nike’s
Many women, on the other hand, felt that Nike’s materials and
its design approach was clunky, that it made their feet look big,
and it wasn’t immediately comfortable, all negative qualities
that Nike’s designers had determined were positives. We had it
backwards for this market.
3. Competitive Product Advantages
Reebok had seized market leadership from Nike with its Princess
and Freestyle shoe models (pictured), which broke with Nike’s
high-performance shoe design paradigm by offering thin and pliable
garment leather, low profile mid-soles, and minimal cushioning. The
result of these design choices was that Reeboks were immediately
comfortable, and they required no break-in period. Reeboks were
also more slender and trim, offering a more petite and appealing
appearance. Reebok design fit customer requirements, while Nike’s
4. Brand Communications Model
To further complicate the situation we were using the wrong
communications model at Nike. For a fitness-oriented person, it
turned out that fitness pursuits are inner-directed, sourced from a
need for physical, psychological, and sometimes emotional therapy.
It was often more about personal empowerment, not high performance
or competitive status, and it was done to bring a feeling of
balance, play, and joy into their lives.
All of these insights surfaced because we were experiencing a
decline in footwear sales to women, and we were determined to study
the issue to get to the bottom of it. The insights that came back
from the research guided our actions and shifted the energy of the
brand with women, sales erosion stopped, and sales began to climb.
Sales to women grew at a 75% -to- 100% year-over-year clip for the
next five years, while Nike’s stock price increased from about $5
per share to over $35.
When there is a mismatch between offer and market response then
there is evidence for a paradox that may, as in this experience,
suggest that there are divergent sets of beliefs and expectations.
The brand manager’s mission is to track down the source of the
divergence, to identify the essence of the paradox, from which can
come a new resolution that overcomes the discrepancy, thereby
reinforcing the strength of the bridge between company and
These core ideas and others can be found in my new book The Brand Bridge – How to Build a
Profound Connection Between Your Company, Your Brand, and Your
The Blake Project Can Help:
The Brand Positioning Workshop
Branding Strategy Insider is a service of The Blake Project: A strategic
brand consultancy specializing in Brand Research, Brand Strategy,
Brand Growth and Brand Education
Source: FS – HT – Brands
Solving Brand Challenges With The Paradox Process