Nike: A Brief History of the Swoosh
Nike is not just a brand name, its a pop culture phenomenon. It remains No.1 in athletic sportswear and hasn’t moved from its pedestal since 1984 and has since created a brand that people have literally killed over. While they could have easily been swept under the rug, folding to competitors like Adidas and Under Armour. So how did they do it? Their success wasn’t as smooth as you may think.
Tiger Woods’ triumph at the PGA Championship last April was not just a milestone for his career, but also a victory for his sponsor, Nike. Appropriate, isn’t it? After all, the brand name is also the name of the Greek-winged goddess of flight and victory. It’s all fortuitous from a fan’s perspective.
According to CNBC, the value of Woods’ victory for Nike racks in a pretty penny, roughly 22.5 million dollars. It’s the sort of relationship that has been cemented since Woods entered PGA in 1996 with Nike famously tag-lining Woods’, “Hello, World.” Was it always that way for Nike?
Today, kids wear the Nike brand like a military uniform and shine the swoop on their shoes like a pair of wingtip oxfords. Hell, it’s not just teenagers and college students, but every athlete and sports lover worships the brand. If Nike lovers could build an altar with nothing but the checkmark of victory, they would do so with incense and a picture of Phil Knight hovered above. Can you blame them?
Nike is an iconic name akin to McDonalds and Google. How is it that, what began as a shoe imported from Japan, turned into a multibillion-dollar branded franchise? The company hit the ground running, but not without some eyebrow-raising controversy (aside from their unprecedented endorsement contract with Kaepernick). And it all started with a university class project and a waffle iron.
Most who know the brand’s history are aware that the idea was born from a then-Stanford graduate student, Phil Knight. His world changed after he took a business course that shook the foundation of the business world. Attending Stanford radically changed Knight’s life, and none was more transformative than his small-business class, which challenged Knight and his classmates to create a new business.
For Knight, it was a wakeup call. It was through this class project that he broke ground and created the foundation for what would eventually become Nike Corp. But before Nike could be…well, Nike, it started off as Blue Ribbon Sports.
An athlete, Knight sought out to create athletic shoewear. Before Adidas, Puma, and Under Armour, most donned on the staple Converse or Keds. Knight saw a market for creating the athletic shoe, however, and got to work to making something durable and comfortable for consumers. He set his eyes westward and witnessed Japan’s creation of shoes and produced them inexpensively (something that would later cause great controversy).
Knight then took things to a higher level and partnered with Japanese company Onitsuka. This new partnership sold $1 million dollars worth of shoes from the back of Knight’s car, which still donned his Blue Ribbon Sports label slapped on top. What ignited next was an explosion of demand that triggered a cultural phenomenon. But not without a few hitches along the way.
By 1971, Knight had developed different variants of shoes, experimenting with different textiles such as leather, velvet, deer hide, and even Kangaroo. The first prototypes ended, more or less, in failure; some breaking apart when coming when getting wet or from excessive wear. Knight also hired engineers who were able to create a shoe that was comfortable and able to withstand the endurance of professional athletes.
One thing that made Nike unique was the underside of the shoe. The grid-like pattern, believe it or not, was inspired by a waffle iron. Then track coach and Nike co-founder, Bill Bowerman, wanted to design a shoe with enough traction that could absorb continuous pressure and energy. He was inspired to create the grid-like design while eating waffles and poured urethane over the waffle maker, which of course stuck together, but it made a unique design.
Knight took the next step and started his own company with a new name. And the idea for his logo came before the name, despite urban legend. Knight sought out graphic design student Carolyn Davidson and gave her the opportunity to create a logo. After a few preliminary sketches, Davidson came up for the iconic checkmark or “Swoosh.”
Davidson was paid $35 for the design, which was a meager sum, but the rewards she would reap would prove substantial. For those of you who feel that Davidson was cheated, don’t worry, Knight gave her due credit, with 50 shares of his company and the proper recognition following Nike’s success.
As for the company’s new name, Knight had several options to work with. Knight pitched the name “Dimension 6,” but his colleagues outright rejected the name. It was actually Nike’s first ever employee, Jeff Johnson, who gave it its current name.
Johnson reported that the name came to him in a dream, stating in an interview that it was one of those “one in a million lightning strike ideas.” Knight wasn’t a fan, but with deadlines coming up, he settled for Johnson’s pitch and the rest, of course, was history.
But, of course, Knight’s success wasn’t solely based on promotional marketing, but something much more intimate. It took ingenuity and Knight’s insistence on his company dipping into America’s bread and butter commodity, pop and sports culture.
What really sold Nike wasn’t a group of clever suits figuring out a way how the company trajectory can sky-rocket within the next twenty years, no, Knight persisted in catapulting Nike straight into consumer’s hands (or in this case, feet) and he did it with NBA All-Star, Michael Jordan. Granted, Steve Prefontaine wore Nike first, but, let’s be honest, without MJ, Nike would have been another Adidas wanna-be and not the creator of the Nike 11 Concord (you know what we’re talking about).
Nike slapped a pair of shoes on Michael Jordan in 1984, but with a high price tag, $500,000 a year, to be exact. Jordan was just coming out as Rookie of the Year, and at the time, Jordan was a big Adidas guy. He was faithful to the brand, but when Adidas couldn’t measure up to Nike, it was clear who Jordan had to sign with.
In his 1984 to 1985 season, Jordan played every game with an average of 28.2 points per game and won, according to ESPN, Rookie of the Year Award. After that, everybody wanted to “Be Like Mike.” Of course, that included the shoes he wore.
By May 1985, Nike shoe sales skyrocketed after the release of Jordan Air. Within two months, Nike sold $70 million worth of shoes and would see a $30 million dollar increase by the end of the year. Knight was hailed a promotional genius and Nike grew rapidly, outranking the athletic shoe industry by a landslide.
The rest is history and soon, faces like Tiger Woods, Sergei Fedorov, LeBron James, Serena Williams, and Amna Al Haddad. Nobody could compete with Nike and nobody dared take the same risks.
To this day, Nike remains No. 1 in shoe sales around the world. That’s no joke. However, being as big as they make them susceptible targets for Human Rights organizations and continuous lawsuits. One of which is their controversial history of manufacturing shoes overseas and embracing cheap foreign labor.
Other controversies include Nike’s questionable history with athletes such as Tonya Harding, who was offered $25,000 for any expenses needed to skate for the 1994 Winter Olympics and its recent turmoils with Kaepernick “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything,” commercial.
In the end, Nike remains a giant. Unstoppable, inspiring, controversial, and ever-evolving. Where will Nike be in 20 years? Hopefully, continuing to “Just Do It.”