God’s Speed: The Story of Nike

Close-up of Nike shoe box
Image credit: Maxwell Nelson on Unsplash

Today, some forty years after the brand was officially born, Nike has come to rank as the world’s largest and most popular sportswear company. The ubiquity of its signature swoosh logo — now every bit as iconic as Coca-Cola’s Spencerian script or McDonald’s golden arches — has translated to a staggering $265 billion market value. 

Easy to forget, then, that it all started with a scrappy college grad named Phil Knight selling shoes out of the trunk of his car. Back in 1962, Knight, a former track runner and recent Stanford business school graduate, became obsessed with the idea of importing cheap Japanese running shoes to America. At the time, German brands like Adidas and Puma dominated the market, but Knight believed their Japanese equivalents could supplant them in the way that years earlier cheaper Japanese cameras had unseated their incumbent German counterparts. 

With this self-described ‘Crazy Idea’ in mind, Knight travelled to Japan as a tourist and visited the headquarters of Onitsuka Tiger (today known as ASICS), posing as an American businessman looking to gain the exclusive rights to distribute their shoes stateside. Incredibly, the Japanese company agreed and Phil quickly scrambled to come up with a plausible-sounding business name. He went with Blue Ribbon Sports, thinking of the blue ribbons in his childhood bedroom that he had won running track. He also needed capital to secure his first shipment, but Knight was flat broke. A frantic phone call back home to his father managed to get him what he needed, though: a cheque for $50.

The $50 bought him twelve pairs of shoes — that and about a year’s worth of waiting for them to arrive in the U.S. When they did, however, Knight drove around his native Oregan selling his Japanese trainers at track meets out of the back of his car. It worked well enough that Knight was quickly in the market for a business partner. He teamed up with his former running coach, Bill Bowerman, the legendary track coach known for mentoring Olympic athletes and getting the nation on its feet with his best-selling book, Jogging. With $500 each buy in and a 51/49 split that put Knight in the driver’s seat, the duo set about playing to their respective strengths. It meant that Knight ran the business side of things while Bowerman focussed on making improvements to Tiger’s running shoes.

Onitsuka Tiger running shoes
Onitsuka Tigers, the shoes the Blue Ribbon Sports sold before it became Nike
Image credit: Kazuhiro Keino / CC BY 2.0

Bowerman’s obsessive tests and tinkering led to many of the company’s early innovations and products, including, perhaps most famously, the ‘waffle’ sole, which he came up with over breakfast while pondering how to best add traction to a rubber outsole. Noticing the pattern on his wife’s waffle iron, he came up with a similar treat design that would be a windfall for the company in the early 1970s (It would also ruin the waffle maker that inspired Bowerman since he forgot to add an anti-sticking agent when filling it with urethane on his first trial). 

While Bowerman kept at this lucrative mad scientist act, Knight, despite constant struggles to appease his creditors, managed to spread the gospel of Tiger shoes. He did so effectively enough that within the first year 1 300 pairs of shoes worth around $8 000 had been sold; within a decade or so, Blue Ribbon was doing around $3.2 million in sales. 

By this time, however, the relationship with Onitsuka had started to deteriorate. When the two companies officially parted ways in 1972, Blue Ribbon was suddenly without any shoes to sell, their longstanding supply having been entirely cut off. With few other options available to them, the company decided to pile all their eggs in the newly-woven basket that was Nike, a label they had covertly started when their dealings with Onitsuka had begun to sour.

As it turns out, Phil Knight was lukewarm to begin with on two of his new brand’s most defining features: the name and the logo. Knight wanted to call the new business Dimension 6, but the name that finally stuck was coined by the company’s first employee, Jeff Johnson. It came to him in a dream he had the day before the naming deadline. His feeling was that iconic brand names like Clorox, Kleenex, and Xerox all have short, punchy names with a strong consonant sound like a ‘K’ or ‘X’ that sticks in your mind. Knight gave the go-ahead because it was the name of the Greek goddess of victory. It also reminded him of a youthful trip he took around the world shortly before founding Blue Ribbon, in which he visited the Temple of Athena Nike in Athens. Reflecting on his visit, Knight writes in his memoir, Shoe Dog, that it all seemed meant to be:

‘I don’t know how long after that day I discovered the Aristophanes play, set in the Temple of Nike in which the warrior gives the king a gift — a pair of new shoes. I don’t know when I figured out the play was called Knights. I do know that as I turned to leave I noticed the temple’s marble façade. Greek artisans had decorated it with several haunting carvings, including the most famous, in which the goddess inexplicably leans down…to adjust the strap of her shoe.’

Phil Knight
Back view of Nike Cortez trainers
Image is my own / All rights reserved

The logo proved equality serendipitous. In need of an emblem to identify his new brand, Knight contacted a design student named Carolyn Davidson who he had bumped into by chance a few years prior on the campus of Oregon State University. He asked her to come up with something that ‘evokes a sense of motion’ and, after some back and forth and not without reservation, they settled on a design they thought looked a bit like a swoosh of air (‘the sound of someone going past you,’ Knight would later say). For her trouble, Davidson got a cheque for $35. A decade or so later in 1983, however, Knight — apparently having come around to the design in the interim — awarded her 500 shares of stock which would now be worth somewhere in the neighbourhood of $1 million.

Knight and his team managed to parlay their expertise selling Tigers into doing the same with Nikes. They did so effectively enough that by the time the company went public in 1980, Knight’s shares alone were worth $178 million. 

There were bumps in the road, to be sure. There was a court battle with Onitsuka and a further legal dispute about a $25 million customs bill in the 1970s, plus the infamous sweatshop controversy of the early 1990s, in which an exposé by activist Jeff Ballinger detailed the poor working conditions and low wages paid in Indonesian Nike factories (The brand responded by installing codes of conduct and improving factory conditions).

Roger Federer playing in Nike gear
Roger Federer, one of many high-profile athletes endorsed by Nike, playing in branded gear
Image credit: Zoë Reeve on Unsplash

Nike continued to expand, however. There were the blockbuster ads (including the 1988 ‘Just Do It’ campaign, apparently inspired by the last words — ‘Let’s do it’ — of murderer Gary Gilmore as he stood before the firing squad), the high-profile acquisitions (the most famous undoubtedly being Converse), and the sponsorship deals with some of the world’s most famous athletes. These include Serena Williams, Roger Federer, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Tiger Woods, in addition to basketball stars LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, and, of course, Michael Jordan, whose lucrative relationship with Nike is a story entirely unto itself. 

Nike first became the world’s biggest sportswear brand in 1989, and it still holds the title today. If such a billion-dollar behemoth feels entirely disconnected from the story of one man peddling shoes out of his car or from the experience of the average person wearing those shoes, consider as a parting thought the grounded musings of that selfsame shoe dog:

‘The average person takes seventy-five hundred steps a day, 274 million steps over the course of a long life, the equivalent of six times around the globe — shoe dogs, it seemed to me, simply wanted to be part of that journey. Shoes were their way of connecting with humanity. What better way of connecting, shoe dogs thought, than by refining the hinge that joins each person to the world’s surface?’

Phil Knight
Man wearing white Nike shoes
‘The hinge that joins each person to the world’s surface,’ Phil Knight
Image credit: Brian Lundquist on Unsplash

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