By Patricia Sellers
January 8, 2009

These days, it seems harder than ever to get back in the game. You know, you take a time-out from corporate America–to spend time with your family (really!) or simply to reinvigorate–and what do you get when you try to return? Serious skepticism about your experience and relevance because (hey, haven’t you noticed?) the world changed radically while you were out.

So, it’s interesting that Liz Dolan, Nike’s

long-ago marketing boss whom I mentioned in Monday’s Postcard, got a call “out of the blue,” as she says, to come on board as chief marketing officer of OWN, Oprah Winfrey’s cable TV venture. OWN stands for the Oprah Winfrey Network, in case you didn’t figure that out. It’s Oprah’s 50-50 joint venture with Discovery Networks

, and it’s due to launch in the next year.

The world will change by then (we hope!), but the rules of building iconic brands won’t all that much: Whether the brand is Nike or Oprah or OWN, success basically derives from “the power of connection” with a target audience, Dolan contends. Oprah and her startup team–which includes former Viacom

CEO Tom Freston, who built MTV–get that. Which is why they hired Dolan, who was once on Sporting News‘ “Power 100” list of the most powerful people in sports and left Nike 12 years ago. From sports to Oprah may seem like a leap, but it’s really not. (For one thing, Oprah says her new network isn’t just for women.) As Dolan starts at OWN this week, she offers a few thoughts about what she learned along the way:

“I started at Nike August 1, 1988–just when the original ‘Just Do It’ ads were breaking. When I was interviewed for the job (initially director of public relations), I asked [Nike founder] Phil Knight why he was just getting around to hiring someone to manage media relations/PR.  His answer was: ‘Well, last year we got sued by the Beatles.’ (You may remember the Revolution ad from ’87?)  We got a ton a bad publicity, but our sales almost doubled. I said to myself, ‘If bad PR could do that for us, what might some good PR do?’

“Craziest day at Nike? The day Michael Jordan retired from basketball (the first time). People outside the company (media, analysts, retailers) went crazy, as if it had never dawned on us that he would not be playing forever. This Chicken Little reaction was a real challenge. In fact, a good team inside the company had prepared for the moment. And now, in 2009, the Jordan Brand is still a major revenue source for Nike.”

After she left Nike in the fall of 1997, Dolan set up her own marketing consultancy, where her first assignment was marketing the Women’s World Cup soccer tournament. “The best day in my professional life,” she recalls, “was sitting in the Rose Bowl July 23, 1999 for the finals of the Women’s World Cup, looking around and seeing that it was totally, completely full, mainly of teams of girls who had come to see their heroes win it all.”

Her next chapter, starting in 2001: Satellite Sisters, a radio show featuring Liz and her four older sisters. (She has three brothers too!) Syndicated by Public Radio International and ABC Radio Networks

, it was smart and fun. “I got to interview everyone from Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai to my favorite Satellite Mister, Bradley Whitford, who will always be White House Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman to me,” says Dolan, clearly a “West Wing” fan. (Bet she doesn’t know that Bradley Whitford’s brother is Fortune editor at large David Whitford.)

Now, as she gets back in the game, Dolan is carrying a lesson she learned at Satellite Sisters and at Nike too: “One good brand,” she says, “can give the audience a full range of experiences, from the serious to the silly–as long as you do it with respect and humor.”

P.S. To Dolan’s credit–and credit due to the Nike brand bosses who followed her–the world’s largest athletic shoe and apparel company has been outperforming most consumer giants lately. Nike stock is up nearly 60% in the past five years and 10% in the past two. The S&P, meanwhile, has Swooshed downward.

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