Dirk Schönberger is a designer, music lover and the Creative Director of adidas' Sport Style Division. He's known for establishing high-profile collaborations with designers and musicians such as Yohji Yamamoto and Kanye West for the German sportswear giant. His signings have enabled adidas to secure their competitive position in the fashion-sneaker market place. Schönberger, who was also responsible for the legendary re-release of the classic Stan Smith shoe, joined adidas in 2010. Prior to that, he was the creative director of the Joop! brand and also designed an eponymous label for 10 years. In his interview with Uli, Schönberger talks about Kanye West, the relationship between music and fashion, and what makes adidas a "cultural" brand.
Reese: Can you talk a little bit about your role at adidas?
Schönberger: I’m part of the team in charge of creative direction. Geographically, our folks are all in different offices, from Herzogenaurach to Portland and New York. With the team being so widespread, I’m responsible for coordinating our work, so that together, we can build a seasonal, mid- and long-term creative direction. Whether I’m working with the different sports categories or with Originals, I’m making sure everything we do looks cohesive and represents the brand. For me, it’s almost a creative consultant role.
Reese: So what about your connection with music? You collect vinyls, right?
Schönberger: Yeah. I started collecting records in the 70s. My first vinyl was a 7-inch T-Rex. I bought it when I was 8 or 9. But I also listened to my older brother’s music, which was a lot more rock, Rolling Stones, Deep Purple, and so on. Then, as a teenager, I went into punk – Kraftwerk, New Wave. Somehow, though, I always liked pop music - I always liked melodies, at the same time I always liked noise. I love the band Jesus And Mary Chain, because they brought together both, great melodies and noise. But I’m also into like bands like The Pet Shop Boys. You could say I have a very schizophrenic taste in music.
Reese: Do you play an instrument?
Schönberger: Well, my parents wanted me to learn to play an instrument, so I had piano lessons. I soon rebelled and told my father, “If you get me a synthesizer, I will play!” And he said, “No. First you learn to play the piano.” It was a nightmare. I tortured that poor instrument. And I eventually dropped it.
Reese: But you are a creator. And that often goes together – music and creation.
Schönberger: It’s not that I’m not interested. I just don’t have the time to dig deeper. I’m also very conscious of what I can, and of what I can’t do. And as much as I’m passionate about music and love every detail of it, I shouldn’t… make music.
Reese: Let’s switch to branding. How important is music in branding?
Schönberger: I think it plays an important part in brand recognition. Listen to Telekom. Just a few notes, and they’re immediately recognizable. You don’t need to watch the screen, when you hear the jingle, you think about Telekom. No matter where you are. It’s almost like scent. It triggers strong memories when you smell something. Similarly, when the music is great, audio can be a very successful tool in branding.
Reese: Good point. Our strongest sense is smell. Right after smell comes the sense of hearing. Sound is hard-wired into our system. Should brands follow a long-term audio strategy?
Schönberger: In the world of our consumers, music is moving pretty quickly. Audio is moving pretty quickly. And while you could argue that adidas is closely connected to rap music and hip hop, I always found that youth culture is about more than just hip hop. At the same time, I don’t think you can nail adidas to one certain sound, or one singular song. If you think about Apple - they always have the same tone of music, when they have a TV spot or whatever, it gives you that melancholic, heroic feel. Maybe that’s something that could work for adidas, too: A certain tone. It could be rap music, it could be pop music, but somehow there’s always the same flow to it. As far as jingles go – I mean, never say never. Maybe it could work for adidas, in some form or other. But consumers of fashion and lifestyle brands are moving so quickly, it’s hard to keep up with them. I think what needs to happen, is that we create a holistic world for adidas – everything from visuals to audio, and smell.
Reese: With the growing digital world, do you think music is going to become more or less important?
Schönberger: If you think about what audio can trigger in people, I think music will always be at the forefront of creating emotions, and connecting people to a certain emotion. So music and sounds in general will definitely become more and more important.
Reese: A lot of money is spent on visuals… but music seems to be more of a panic-driven afterthought, often dictated by which license gets cleared first, there’s time pressure, and so on. At the same time, music can make or break a piece of communication. It’s so important. Why, then, do you think it’s still so undervalued?
Schönberger: That’s a good question. I never understood it. I’m so specific and so obsessed with music. If I watch a TV spot and the music feels “dated”, for me the brand feels dated as well. I usually get the impression that it’s a brand without any real insight into what their target consumer listens to. They go, “Oh, I like this, I listen to this, so I will project that onto my consumer, somehow.” It’s so far from what I would do. I can’t understand why people don’t take it more seriously and put it higher up on their agenda.
Reese: The music decision-making process is often dependent on the highest executive on brand side, or the director on the creative side. I do wonder… Does anybody study focus groups any more? Or target consumer groups?
Schönberger: When you’re working for a brand that is targeted towards a very young consumer, you either need to be very open-minded, or you need to delegate the decision to someone else. That is pretty clear to me. I’ll be honest, when I listen to the music that the kids listen to in our brand, I can’t really relate to it. There are some interesting aspects, but it’s just too far from me. And I’m very open-minded, I’m very interested. I listen to a lot of different things, from hip hop to soul to electronic music, to rock, to pop. I feel you can somehow measure the temperature of a generation from the music they listen to. You know where things are going, from the way they dress, from the way they express themselves, etc. Think about the last two Kanye West albums – Yeezus was raw and hard, and brutal, and it was a great, interesting statement reflecting the times we were living in. We were really getting into trouble everywhere in the world – crises, terror attacks, wars. And now Kanye comes out with a new album, one that’s all about soul, about gospel, almost like a hopeful signal. It was an interesting shift. So what is youth all about these days? Back then, it was about getting rid of their aggression – electro, punk. And now it’s about celebrating hope and optimism, in a certain way.
Reese: Kanye takes the DNA of the Zeitgeist and transforms it into music. If you think of adidas – and you think about: What’s the sound of sport? How do we get there? It needs to be the DNA of the consumer. I think the consumer owns the brand.
Schönberger: Of course. The consumers own all the brands.
Reese: Yes. And what you guys at adidas excel at – you let your partners participate. It’s never a one-sided deal.
Schönberger: For me, adidas has always been a cultural brand. It has always been about sports culture, but at the same time it has always been so much more than that. It’s a much more complex universe than any of the other sports brands live in. It’s not just about looking good, being fit, and so on. It’s about a lifestyle. It’s about art, it’s about music, it’s about fashion. And, of course, at its core, at its heart, it’s about sports. But all those things combined make adidas a much richer brand. And it’s not like we pick those aspects as a marketing tool – no. It’s in our DNA, and you can see it in our behavior over decades. It’s not like we turned a switch three years ago, and all of a sudden we’re connected to music – no, we have always been connected to music. When you think about Run DMC in the ‘80s…
Reese: And you know, some people think that was an endorsement deal, a promotion. But it wasn’t! Run DMC were just so fond of the brand that they dedicated their art to it.
Schönberger: Yeah. It’s all about the cultural context. You can immediately say: “This is the cultural context of adidas, not any other brand.”
Reese: Could you define the brand DNA of adidas in just a few words?
Schönberger: Well. adidas is about simplicity, without focusing too much on minimalism. People make the mistake of thinking that simplicity means everything has to be reduced, minimalistic, or puristic. I feel that adidas is a brand with a lot of individual mosaic stones, and together they form a picture. At its heart, adidas is a sports brand, yes. But the influences that come into the brand from the outside – from the art world, the music industry, the fashion industry – all of that creates a very complex overall picture. A complex one, but at the same time – to speak in culinary terms – it makes a very well-tasting, rich soup. (Laughs).
Reese: It’s a living brand.
Schönberger: Yes. And it keeps moving and evolving. adidas has a very rich history. What we do is to look at the work we did in the past, take the intention of why we did what we did and then design new products with that in mind. It’s all about a collective memory, an attitude, a design language with a pretty straight line. It’s modern, but it stays on track. I feel like this idea of looking into the past and using those triggers, what drove us to create something in the past, and create something new out of it, that is the intriguing bit. It’s amazing to me how this brand keeps reinventing itself.
Reese: If you were to sum up the most important message you wanted to get across in this interview, what would it be?
Schönberger: Music, to me, was first, before clothes, or fashion. Music influenced the way I’m dressing. It shaped my sense of taste. And music was also the first major influence in my life when it comes to my aesthetics. It’s the most important, overall emotional driver in my life.
Reese: Do you think that will ever change?
Schönberger: No. But I sometimes wonder… I don’t want to be one of those people lamenting that everything was better back in the day. But everyone can create music nowadays. Everyone can create fashion.
Reese: It’s digital democratization.
Schönberger: And it’s a great thing… I just think that the selection process is becoming tougher. The fine-tuning between a good and a bad song is becoming more difficult. There’s a lot of noise nowadays.