James Carnes has been working for the adidas Group since graduating with his Bachelor's degree in industrial engineering and built an impressive design career at the US-headquarters in Portland, going from a design internship to being Senior Vice President of Design and Global Creative Director Performance. But most importantly, Carnes is a sports enthusiast and passionate creative with a deep understanding of the brand and its products. After 20 years of working in design, he took on his current role of Vice President of Global Brand Strategy in January 2015. In the 101GreatMinds interview Carnes talks about the role of music in his field of work, how music is related to sports and about creative triumphs at adidas.
Reese: Could you talk about your current role at adidas?
Carnes: Since January 2015, I’ve been in charge of brand strategy/creation, after spending about 20 years in design. The unique focus of this new role is to think about the future from a “what if” standpoint. We get all of the information - insights that we have from our consumers - and then project, and imagine, what could become a new trend in the future. In essence, our work revolves around considering which ideas we should invest in, which capabilities we need to be building, what types of products we should look into, and in which new ways we should be interacting with our consumers. For example, we have recognized that despite the growth of the sports industry, participation in sport has not grown. What do you do with that? How do you focus on getting more people to participate in sport? Instead of idolizing heroes, we need to recognize heroism on a daily basis: People who are coaches, or kids who just learn a new sport, for example. That’s what I do.
Reese: How important is music in that equation?
Carnes: It’s essential to the livelihood of sport. It’s the foundation - because movement has rhythm, and people use music as a part of their sport experience. The sound of sport is critical.
Reese: So how would you define the sound of adidas right now?
Carnes: Right now, the sound of adidas is probably a default of the most interesting musical characters associated with our brand.
Reese: By that you mean the likes of Kanye West, Pharrell Williams, and Rita Ora, correct? But you as a brand don’t associate yourselves with them just for their music. They create fashion for you.
Carnes: Yes, they do. As a brand, we’re so culturally embedded that we have been able to attract some of these great cultural icons and build creative partnerships with them. Some of them happen to be great musicians, and we get a little uptick from that association to the world of music. More than I think other brands do.
Reese: Billboard Magazine calls you “the kingpin of music.”
Carnes: I get where they’re coming from. There’s a strong connection. For a certain period, we had a particularly strong Hip Hop association. But while we get invited to the party, the music is theirs, not ours.
Reese: Is there any sort of long-term strategic vision that you as a brand have with respect to music? With respect to owning music, producing music, or developing an audio identity for your brand?
Carnes: adidas has always been about innovation and engineering. There is a particular strong focus on our visual identity – the visual way of expressing the experience we create. At its core, however, the DNA of adidas is all about creativity at large. What has attracted people to our brand is the authenticity of our belief that you stand out by the things that you create. That’s also why we have always attracted musicians. Run DMC loved adidas, because the brand is real, it’s authentic - we have never copied anyone. Recently, that epiphany has given us the confidence to think outside of the visual DNA. More than ever before, it’s now almost an imperative for us to look at our total DNA, across all the senses. It happened with a product called Boost. People actually didn’t like the visuals of the product design at the start. We went with it all the same, because it was unique and different. And what made Boost really unique was the haptic experience, the way the shoe feels. In the same way, sound is definitely one of the things that we have to look at next.
Reese: Do you think music is going to be more important in the future?
Carnes: Definitely - particularly with respect to sport. One of the reason people love sport is because of the way it makes them feel. It energizes them, makes them feel positive, it connects them to a certain rhythm. If we could capture that mood through sound… The first person, or brand, that is able to capture that uplifting feeling will create a totally new experience around sport.
Reese: Can music influence consumer behavior?
Carnes: Yes, of course. I mean, why do all those retail stores focus so much on what kind of music they play? Music can influence people’s feelings about a brand and whether they want to purchase.
Reese: And it’s universal. Music is the only global language.
Carnes: That is something music and sport have in common. I always give this example: There are 196 countries in the UN. But there were 206 countries at the last Olympics. We find more common ground in sport than we do in politics! And I think it’s similar with music.
Reese: Both sport and music certainly have similar effects on our bodies. There are pieces of music that will give you an immediate release of dopamine. Same if you’re on the treadmill for an hour. The reward system kicks in.
Carnes: I agree. Music also has this connection to memories. Sometimes you realize you love a piece of music so much because it’s associated with a certain time in your life. It’s similar with sport… you build up muscle memory. If I were to go for a run now, the first 15meters would immediately put me in a certain mood.
Reese: Do you guys ever measure the effect of the audio in your brand communication? In terms of consumer engagement or return on investment…If you look at a film – say that “Your Future Is Not Mine” spot - how much of its effect can be pinned to music?
Carnes: I’d have hard time putting it into percentages. But as a strategist, I can tell you this: How somebody feels will be about 75-90% of their takeaway. They won’t remember what they saw, they won’t remember the words they heard, they’re unlikely to remember any of the actual content. What they will remember, though, is how they felt when they were watching it, which will come down to some of the basic elements of lighting, movement, and music. The music in particular can have a dramatic influence on how somebody feels.
Reese: When I watched “Your Future Is Not Mine,” it really hit me. It’s such a strong piece. At the core of it, the visuals, the words, and the music ultimately transfer a meaning. It’s all about semantics. It goes back to the main reason why we buy a product: We don’t buy a certain brand because it offers us more functionality than a different one. We buy it because it gives our life a certain meaning. It’s something we all look for – a meaning in our jobs, a meaning in our lives.
Carnes: There’s a great book that I just finished reading, it’s called “All Marketers Are Liars.” And it talks about just that: The age of advertising, of showcasing, is basically dead. What you really buy is a story to tell yourself, a story that fits into the worldview of your own identity.
Reese: When I watched “Your Future Is Not Mine,” I became fascinated with your brand. At adidas, you seem to do things differently.
Carnes: That’s what kept me with this brand so long. It’s a gigantic place, it has so much structure, and you would think it runs in very traditional ways. But everything interesting about it defies the nature of its existence. Whether that’s how we signed Kanye, to how we created the World Cup jerseys for the national team for Germany in 2014, to how we created Y3 and got into fashion, to how we first made contact with Run DMC. Every single one of those moments was a turning point. In essence, they were doomed to fail, because there was an alliance against them. Upper management was skeptical about them. Yet they all happened. A little belief community disrupted this company so many times. And every single one of these stories, to me, is a triumph for creativity.
Reese: Which ones were you a part of?
Carnes: I was part of Y3, for example. My boss at the time, Michael Michalsky, was one of the people who tried to get the brand to connect to that core creative community again, that culturally influential community consisting of musicians and artists. He facilitated our cooperation with Yohji Yamamoto. Together with Yohji and his team, we ended up re-imagining sports wear. We replaced materials, we did crazy colors, we put roses on performance running shoes. Michalsky looked at it and said, “This is totally not what I expected, but it’s amazing. Let’s make it happen.” And the way to make it happen was to appear with those products on the runway. No one had really ever done that before.
Reese: You’re saying there were no sports brands that worked the runway prior to that?
Carnes: No… it was sports for sports, and fashion for fashion. Actually, fashion was almost a taboo word in the sports industry at the time. The idea was: Sport is on a higher ground. It’s functional, it has a purpose, it has a meaning. Fashion is fleeting, it’s purely emotional… They were two entirely separate entities. Marrying the two was a huge risk, but in the end, it paid off. Within a two-week period, we earned something like 40 million in free advertising space because the whole thing caused such a stir. We almost invented a new segment. “Sport fashion” became a new thing. My point is: Every single one of these instances - which might look like calculated successes from the outside – every single one of them faced exactly the same kind of challenges that every creative person on this planet faces. It’s never easy.
Reese: It’s supposed to be hard.
Carnes: Exactly. It’s not worth it if it’s not hard. I’m a firm believer that the potential of change that you can bring to the world is directly proportionate to the epicness of the potential failure. That fear, though, is one of the most positive powerful motivators there is. A lot of people say that creativity thrives when people feel safe. I think it thrives when people are capable of harnessing their own fears.