Swoosh: The Nike Story

1 minutes reading time
Published 20 May 2024
Author: Emil Persson
Reviewed by: Kasper Karlsson

Nike, with its distinctive swoosh logo and “Just Do It” slogan, has grown to become one of the most iconic and popular footwear and apparel companies in the world. The story of Nike is a tale of innovation, marketing brilliance, and strategic evolution, which has helped it dominate the sports apparel and equipment market over several decades. Founded by Phil Knight and Bill Bowerman, the company has grown to dominate its industry and continues to do so through a combination of innovative products, brand recognition, and marketing genius.

Key Insights

  • Finding a hole in the market: The company's breakthrough came through innovation, and providing a new type of product that made athletes better.

  • An incredibly strong brand: Nike has managed to build an incredibly strong brand through product innovation and smart utilization of both its famous slogan and logo.

  • Marketing masterminds: Throughout the years, Nike has consistently proven themselves to be an excellent marketer through a combination of different methods and media.

Originating as Blue Ribbon Sports

The genesis of Nike began as a college project and an eventual partnership between Phil Knight, a former track and field athlete, and Bill Bowerman, who had been his coach at the University of Oregon. After Knight graduated from Oregon, he attended a small business class at Stanford, where he wrote a paper that proposed quality athletic shoes could be manufactured in Japan, which would then compete with more established German brands (more specifically, Adidas and Puma). After graduating from Stanford in 1962, Knight decided to put his theory into practice.

Knight traveled to Japan to meet with Onitsuka Tiger (which would later go on to become ASICS), a manufacturer of athletic shoes. Presenting himself as the representative of an American distributor interested in selling Tiger shoes in the U.S., Knight secured an order and began importing the shoes. The Blue Ribbon Sports (BRS) company was established in 1964 as a partnership between Knight and Bowerman. Bowerman was interested in redesigning the shoes to better suit the needs of his athletes, and his involvement provided crucial technical expertise going forward. While the two German companies had complete dominance over the American market, Knight saw a golden opportunity to sell, what he considered to be, better products at a lower price.

Further Reading: Adidas vs Puma: The Story of the Dassler Brothers

Blue Ribbon Sports Becomes Nike

The business was slow at first, and Knight primarily sold the Japanese shoes from the trunk of his car at track meets. He was an excellent salesman, and the much cheaper shoes rose in popularity amongst college athletes across the country. While Knight was mainly focused on the sales side, his former coach was spending time developing and tinkering with different shoe designs which were to help athletes perform better. Bowerman’s obsession with product development led him to experiment with various materials and shoe designs, which would later become a core aspect of Nike's business strategy.

In 1971, as the relationship with Onitsuka ended, Blue Ribbon Sports transitioned to designing and manufacturing its own line of footwear. The name of the company was chosen after the Greek goddess of victory, a logo was designed, and the company began selling shoes under its own brand: Nike. As time would show, Knights's entrepreneurial spirit and Bowerman's technical prowess were an extremely potent combination. Knight served as the CEO from the company's founding up until 2004, and Bowerman slowly but surely cut down on both his equity and involvement in the company throughout the 70s before retiring.

The Creation of the Swoosh and the Logos Impact

As for the designer of the Swoosh? She was paid 35 dollars at the time, reflecting a standard rate of pay for a freelance designer designing a brand logo. While this was considered completely in line with expectations and rate of pay at the time, it's undeniable that her few hours of work have helped make the brand into what it is today. Apart from the recognition Davidson has gotten as the designer of one of the most iconic logos of all time, Nike has compensated her further. While it has never been disclosed exactly how much she has received, and the sources differ, Davidson was awarded undisclosed amounts of Nike stock when the company went public.

Nike's adoption of the Swoosh as a central element of its branding strategy has played a critical role in its market positioning. The consistent use of the Swoosh across all Nike products helps maintain a strong, instantly recognizable brand coherence and is so much more than a logo. It is a strategic asset that has significantly contributed to the company’s growth, resonance in the sports industry, and cultural impact worldwide. The Swoosh is simple, distinctive, and instantly recognizable for consumers, regardless of where they’re from, and has been a key part of the company's growth.

The Breakthrough with Nike Cortez

The real game-changer came when Bowerman used his wife’s waffle iron to forge a new running shoe sole that provided better traction and was lighter in weight. This shoe was first sold exclusively to top U.S. track athletes, but in 1972 Nike released its first mass-market product: the Nike Cortez.

The shoe was incredibly well received and became more or less an overnight success thanks to its light weight and grippy undersole. This provided the young company with two things: a confirmation that what they were doing was worthwhile, and the capital to expand further. From this point on, Nike was more or less unstoppable.

Introduction of Innovative Products

Nike's growth was fueled by both technological innovation and marketing prowess. In 1978, Nike launched the Air technology with the Tailwind shoe, featuring air-filled plastic membranes in the soles to absorb shock and add comfort. This innovation was important, setting the stage for many future technologies that would create and define Nike’s product lines. It also helped cement Nike as a company that innovated and pushed boundaries in the minds of consumers, as the Air technology was something completely new at the time.

This period was also when Nike moved away from being solely an athletics brand to becoming more of a lifestyle brand. The company started selling everything from clothes to sporting equipment, and more and more consumers started incorporating Nike products into their day-to-day lives.

The 1980s marked a significant boom for Nike, thanks to a smart marketing strategy and expansion into new markets. The pivotal moment came in 1984 when Nike signed a young Michael Jordan, releasing the first Air Jordan sneaker, which was an instant success. This endorsement proved to be one of the most lucrative deals in sports marketing history and positioned Nike as a key player in basketball. The Air Jordan brand continues to be a massive success for Nike and is one of the company's crown jewels.

Throughout the years, innovation and the pushing of boundaries have been a key cornerstone in Nike's business philosophy. Regardless of whether it's a new type of undersole that provides better grip or a running shoe that weighs next to nothing, Nike is constantly innovating in order to stay ahead of the competition.

Just Do It and Masterful Marketing

Nike's marketing strategies have been a cornerstone of its growth and brand recognition from the early days until today. From its early advertising campaigns to modern digital strategies, Nike has consistently used marketing techniques that have helped it rise to the top in athletic footwear, apparel, and equipment.

Nike's 1988 ad campaign introduced the company's now famous “Just Do It” slogan and was pivotal in transforming Nike from a pure sports brand into a lifestyle brand. The slogan encapsulated a motivational and empowering message that resonated broadly with the public, encouraging people to engage in sports and fitness regardless of their skill level.

While the company's slogan has been a constant since it was first introduced, Nike continues to push the envelope with their marketing in other areas. Technology and innovation tend to be at the forefront, but in recent years social issues and equality have become more and more of a focal point. Additionally, Nike has mastered the art of product placement in movies, television, and music videos, further embedding its products in popular culture. Unsurprisingly, Nike has adapted to the times and now operates with a focus on digital marketing and social media to reach a wider and younger audience.

Nike has been at the forefront of adopting digital platforms for marketing, including social media channels, mobile apps, and its own website. Campaigns like the Nike+ community not only promote their products but also engage consumers in a digital ecosystem that tracks athletic performance and provides personalized coaching, integrating Nike into the daily lives of its customers. However, the most iconic Nike marketing campaigns have almost all been centered around their endorsed athletes.

Partnerships with Famous Athletes and Leagues

While partnering and offering lucrative sponsorship deals to famous athletes is nothing unique, Nike has consistently managed to sign the best of the best to represent them. The list is far too extensive to fit into the scope of this article, but some examples of world-famous “Nike Athletes” include names like Tiger Woods, LeBron James, Serena Williams, Marcus Rashford, and many, many more. Another example is the company's close collaboration with Eliud Kipchoge, as Nike developed a shoe that was capable of aiding the Kenyan in becoming the first human ever to run a sub-2-hour marathon. Kipchoge completed the feat which had long been considered impossible while wearing a pair of Nike's purpose-built for the task.

However, in recent years Nike has started to broaden its scope away from just sponsoring individual athletes. In a bid to increase its exposure to consumers, the company recently signed massive deals with both the NFL and the MLB. As of the time of the writing of this article, the Nike Swoosh can be seen on all uniforms and all equipment worn by teams in the league, amounting to a nearly inconceivable amount of exposure for the brand as a whole. While this came with a hefty price tag (Nike together with the manufacturer Fanatics paid $1 billion to supply the uniforms for 10 years), when looking at the screentime and overall publicity Nike gets from the deal it looks like an absolute bargain.

Oregon is Home

The company, and its founder, have deep connections with the state of Oregon. It was there that Phil Knight grew up and came to love running, and Nike has always considered the state to be both its actual and spiritual home. The global Nike headquarters are situated in Beaverton and the company is a source of pride (and a significant employer) for the residents of Oregon.

Nike Today

As previously mentioned, Nike is today the largest brand of its kind in the world. The company has become incredibly diverse, providing equipment and apparel for just about every sport imaginable. Regardless of whether someone is looking for skateboarding shoes, a running tank top, or baseball cleats, there is an alternative with a Swoosh available. Furthermore, the company has been a key driver in the rise of athleisure, with many consumers now wearing Nike as they go about their daily lives. Making Nike a lifestyle brand as well as an athletic brand was, and continues to be, a deliberate strategy that has paid off immensely for the brand.

While the world of athletic wear is highly competitive with historical brands like Adidas and Puma, and newer companies such as Lululemon and Under Armour all competing for customers' attention and wallets there is one clear leader: Nike. At the time of the writing of this article, Nike's market capitalization is roughly 2.5 times more than its closest competitors and the company enjoys a larger market share in nearly every corner of the world when compared to other companies in the sector.

One of the best ways to illustrate Nike's sheer scale compared to its closest competitors is to look at the footwear segment. Nike generated roughly $8 billion in revenue from the footwear segment alone in the first quarter of 2024, while its closest competitor Adidas, generated roughly $5,9 billion across all its segments during the same period.

Closing Remarks

The story of Nike is fascinating and goes to show that great products coupled with a strong brand and effective marketing campaigns can go a very, very long way. However, one of the most impressive things about Nike is the fact that the company refuses to rest on its laurels. While the company, like all apparel brands, continues to bring out new collections and types of clothing in order to stay on top of trends and offer consumers alternatives, Nike has continually proven themselves to be masters of all aspects of their craft: product, marketing, and branding.

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