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Nike’s Web-Connected Basketball Jersey May Not Be As Silly As It Sounds

Nike is releasing an NFC chip-enabled jersey that’s designed to connect fans to players. Gimmick or smart UX?

In our breathless march toward the internet of things, web-enabled clothing sounds like another idea launched by two startup bros smoking artisanal weed. Nike has managed to find a compelling spin on the concept nonetheless, with something the company calls “the first NBA-connected jersey.” Let’s say you have a Russell Westbrook jersey with NBAConnect. There’s an NFC chip in the tag. By tapping it to your phone, you can unlock footage of Russ swaggering to the game in his latest couture getup, real-time game highlights and stats, and sometimes even power-up codes for NBA2K18 that might give avatar Russ a hot hand.

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Connected experiences have been the holy grail in a number of businesses. For instance, Carnival cruise lines is set to unveil a groundbreaking IoT platform, in which an NFC wearable unlocks seamless service aboard their ships. Meanwhile Sephora has experimented with a number of ways to infuse the store experience with digital customization.

But what typically trips up businesses that want to play in the space of connected experiences is the simple problem of getting people to install something and then creating a user profile. No one wants to do it.

In this case, Nike had the canny UX insight that the fans’ relationship to the jersey they’ve bought is a unique leverage point: They’re highly engaged and emotionally connected to a particular player. So they’re probably apt to download the NikeConnect app, if doing so means getting in closer with the player they love. “We spend a lot of time watching people’s behavior. The purest insight we had was that we see kids playing sports and staying connected to their phones. This extends that behavior by blending the physical and the digital,” says John Hoke, Nike’s vice president of global design. “We like to say this uniform is really an all-access pass.”

[Photo: courtesy Nike]
And this being Nike, the new jerseys themselves bear a magic mix of high-tech sensibility and marketing pixie dust. Hoke says the new jerseys are 20% lighter, with a front panel that has a sturdier drape than the back, thus creating better pockets for air circulation. When a player runs, that air exits the back, through an “exhaust” panel composed of a more porous fabric.

[Photo: courtesy Nike]
Of course, whether consumers will actually use it for the connected experiences is anyone’s guess. Bonus content plays are usually pretty lame: Think of all those QR codes you never scan, or all those “behind-the-scenes” videos that end up being ads. Whether this experiment in web-connected clothing feels either gimmicky or special ultimately depends on how much Nike is willing to invest in creating the bonus content that lives on NikeConnect. Nike points out that in developing the jersey, they were constantly testing whether the offers they came up with were good enough to keep users engaged. “The first part of the journey is making the experience seamless,” says Adam Sussman, Nike’s chief digital officer. “The second part is creating real value.”

Sussman says that the hypothesis that fans really would want all this extra content came from Nike’s experience creating apps. In the core Nike app, the company discovered that the “We Reserve For You” tab was actually the most well-engaged feature. That engagement in turn created enough signal to custom-tailor offerings. Nike has also been able to lure customers using AR. Inside the Nike SNKRS app, there have been virtual treasure hunts, in which users have to go to a physical location to unlock the chance to buy a particular pair of shoes. Within NikeConnect, Nike intends to extend those learnings, whether through carefully curated highlights linked to a particular player or team, or swag that can be purchased early. The highlights themselves come in GIF form, so they can easily be shared and texted.

About the author

Cliff is director of product innovation at Fast Company, founding editor of Co.Design, and former design editor at both Fast Company and Wired.

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