Sean Bruich On the Digital Revolution, Nike-Style

When Sean Bruich was a middle-schooler in California, he was a big San Diego Padres fan, like many of his friends. But his fandom took an interesting form for someone that young: he was obsessed with stats. “I would be on my Windows 95 computer trying to understand the way stats in baseball could be important in predicting players’ success.”

Fast forward to today, and Bruich’s early attraction to statistics, analytics, and sports has led to an impressive career. He is currently Nike’s first VP of Consumer Science and Insights—after having held data science positions at Google and Facebook—and has registered more than 30 patents related to analytics, marketing measurement, and consumer privacy. At Nike he brings together teams specializing in consumer data science, marketing science, applied analytics, and consumer and market research. Bruich shared his experiences with students at the recent Baker Executive Speaker Series event “Creating the Future of Sport.”

Nike’s Consumer Data Advantages

Bruich said that over the past two decades he has witnessed an explosion of attention to how analytics can be combined with traditional market research and become integrated into day-to-day business operations. But there is still a long way to go.

“We see a big divergence between the business operators and the marketers and the people who are doing [analytics] work,” Bruich said. “A big part of my job is [about] what the future of this field is going to look like.” He said he wants to ensure that executives outside of data science have a better understanding of the “possibilities and perils” of making more data-informed decisions.

Bruich very much enjoys working for a sport-focused company, where he says a lot of interesting data can be gathered. In addition to retail footwear and apparel, Nike invests in digital running and training apps, which he notes are “different ways of connecting with athletes around the world.” He said the rich data from these apps gives his team insights into what kinds of fitness goals consumers are hitting or struggling with, and what kinds of sports are emerging.

He also considers Nike a unique operator in its space because it’s a household-name retailer that’s also increasingly focused on direct-to-consumer sales. Not many companies are doing that at scale, Bruich said. Nike has hundreds of millions of customers who have connected directly with the company: what can be learned about them to make better products, to help them reach their fitness goals? This is one of the initiatives that engages Bruich and his team.

“Nike’s got a great business model where if we help you run, we sell more running shoes. It’s really positive,” he said. “And I think connectivity at scale is one of the most unique opportunities in front of us. It’s a big part of why I’m excited about my role at Nike.”

The Makings of a Data Analyst

Bruich also regaled the Baker students with descriptions of his previous positions in Silicon Valley, which took place during “an interesting time for data science and analytics… really the beginning of the field.” At Google he engaged in quantitative research on customer satisfaction (“that’s now kind of industry standard,” he said modestly). He was then hired by Facebook, at a time when Facebook was transitioning to an ad-supported business model but online display advertising was still uncommon. Bruich was Facebook’s first analytics person on the ad business side.

Bruich confessed that while at Google, he found coding a challenging endeavor. He recounted how a senior engineer reviewing his code asked, “Did a statistician teach you how to write Python?” When Bruich answered yes, the engineer quipped, “I can tell.” But he stuck with it, and said it was one of the best decisions he ever made.

He encouraged all the students to take a class in computer science, saying, “Even if you never end up using it, I do think it will change your way of thinking about the world. And you’ll be more aware of the possibilities that this digital revolution is creating for us.”