Before there was the Swoosh, before there was Nike, there were two visionary men who pioneered a revolution in athletic footwear that redefined the industry.
Bill Bowerman was a nationally respected track and field coach at the University of Oregon, who was constantly seeking ways to give his athletes a competitive advantage. He experimented with different track surfaces, re-hydration drinks and – most importantly – innovations in running shoes. But the established footwear manufacturers of the 1950s ignored the ideas he tried to offer them, so Bowerman began cobbling shoes for his runners.
Phil Knight was a talented middle-distance runner from Portland, who enrolled at Oregon in the fall of 1955 and competed for Bowerman’s track program. Upon graduating from Oregon, Knight earned his MBA in finance from Stanford University, where he wrote a paper that proposed quality running shoes could be manufactured in Japan that would compete with more established German brands. But his letters to manufacturers in Japan and Asia went unanswered, so Knight took a chance.
He made a cold-call on the Onitsuka Co. in Kobe, Japan, and persuaded the manufacturer of Tiger shoes to make Knight a distributor of Tiger running shoes in the United States. When the first set of sample shoes arrived, Knight sent several pairs to Bowerman, hoping to make a sale. Instead, Bowerman stunned Knight by offering to become his partner, and to provide his footwear design ideas to Tiger.
They shook hands to form Blue Ribbon Sports, pledged $500 each and placed their first order of 300 pairs of shoes in January 1964. Knight sold the shoes out of the trunk of his green Plymouth Valiant, while Bowerman began ripping apart Tiger shoes to see how he could make them lighter and better, and enlisted his University of Oregon runners to wear-test his creations. In essence, the foundation for what would become Nike had been established.
But Bowerman and Knight each had full-time jobs – Bowerman at Oregon and Knight at a Portland accounting firm – so they needed someone to manage the growing requirements of Blue Ribbon Sports. Enter Jeff Johnson, whom Knight had met at Stanford. A runner himself, Johnson became the first full-time employee of Blue Ribbon Sports in 1965, and quickly became an invaluable utility man for the start-up company.
He created the first product brochures, print ads and marketing materials, and even shot the photographs for the company’s catalogues. Johnson established a mail-order system, opened the first BRS retail store (located in Santa Monica, Calif.) and managed shipping/receiving. He also designed several early Nike shoes, and even conjured up the name Nike in 1971.
Around this same time, the relationship between BRS and Onitsuka was falling apart. Knight and Bowerman were ready to make the jump from being a footwear distributor to designing and manufacturing their own brand of athletic shoes.
They selected a brand mark today known internationally as the “Swoosh,” which was created by a graphic design student at Portland State University named Carolyn Davidson. The new Nike line of footwear debuted in 1972, in time for the U.S. Track & Field Trials, which were held in Eugene, Ore.
One particular pair of shoes made a very different impression – literally – on the dozen or so runners who tried them. They featured a new innovation that Bowerman drew from his wife’s waffle iron – an outsole that had waffle-type nubs for traction but were lighter than traditional training shoes.
With a new logo, a new name and a new design innovation, what BRS now needed was an athlete to endorse and elevate the new Nike line. Fittingly for the company founded by Oregonians, they found such a young man from the small coastal town of Coos Bay, Ore. His name: Steve Prefontaine.
Prefontaine electrified the packed stands of Oregon’s Hayward Field during his college career from 1969 to 1973. He never lost any race at his home track over the one-mile distance, and quickly gained national exposure thanks to cover stories on magazines like Sports Illustrated and his fourth-place finish in 1972 in the 5,000m in Munich.
Pre challenged Bowerman, Johnson and BRS in general to stretch their creative talents. In turn, he became a powerful ambassador for BRS and Nike after he graduated from Oregon, making numerous appearances on behalf of BRS and sending pairs of Nike shoes to prospective runners along with personal notes of encouragement.
His tragic death at age 24 in 1975 cut short what many believed would have been an unparalleled career in track – at the time of his death, he held American records in seven distances from 2,000m to 10,000m. But Prefontaine’s fiery spirit lives on within Nike; Knight has often said that Pre is the “soul of Nike.”
Nike entered the 1980s on a roll, thanks to the successful launch of Nike Air technology in the Tailwind running shoe in 1979. By the end of 1980, Nike completed its IPO and became a publicly traded company. This began a period of transition, where several of Nike’s early pioneers decided to move on to other pursuits. Even Phil Knight stepped down as president for more than a year in 1983-1984, although he remained the chairman of the board and CEO.
By the mid-1980s, Nike had slipped from its position as the industry leader, in part because the company had badly miscalculated on the aerobics boom, giving upstart competitors an almost completely open field to develop the business. Fortunately, the debut of a new signature shoe for an NBA rookie by the name of Michael Jordan in 1985 helped bolster Nike’s bottom line.
In 1987, Nike readied a major product and marketing campaign designed to regain the industry lead and differentiate Nike from its competitors. The focal point was the Air Max, the first Nike footwear to feature Nike Air bags that were visible. The campaign was supported by a memorable TV ad whose soundtrack was the original Beatles’ recording of ‘Revolution.’
A year later, Nike built on its momentum from the ‘Revolution’ campaign by launching a broad yet empowering series of ads with the tagline “Just do it.” The series included three ads with a young two-sport athlete named Bo Jackson, who espoused the benefits of a new cross-training shoe.
In 1989, Nike’s cross-training business exploded, thanks in part to the incredibly popular “Bo Knows” ad campaign. By the end of the decade, Nike had regained its position as the industry leader, the first and only time a company in the athletic footwear/apparel industry has accomplished such a feat. Nike has never relinquished that position again.
Buoyed by a series of successful product launches and marketing campaigns, Nike entered the 1990s by christening its beautiful world headquarters in suburban Portland, Oregon. In November of 1990, Portland became the first home to a new retail-as-theatre experience called Niketown, which would earn numerous architectural design and retail awards and spawn more than a dozen other Niketown locations around the USA and internationally.
While Nike had designed footwear and apparel for golf and soccer for a number of years, the mid-1990s signaled a deepening commitment to truly excel in these sports. In 1994, Nike signed several individual players from what would be the World Cup-winning Brazilian National Team. In 1995, Nike signed the entire team, and began designing the team’s distinctive uniform. Nike also signed the US men’s and women’s national soccer teams, as well as dozens of national teams around the world.
In 1996, Nike Golf landed a vastly talented but as-yet-unproven young golfer named Eldrick “Tiger” Woods for a reported $5 million per year. Competitors laughed and critics howled at Nike’s ‘folly,’ until Tiger won the 1997 Masters by a record 12 strokes. No one is laughing now.
Nike also began investing in the sport of cycling, including a promising young cyclist who appeared to be on his way to success until he was diagnosed with cancer. He lost most of his sponsors, but Nike elected to stay with him. In 1999, Lance Armstrong’s incredible comeback resulted in the first of what would be seven consecutive Tour de France titles.
Nike rang in the new millennium with a new footwear cushioning system called Nike Shox, which debuted during Sydney in 2000. The development of Nike Shox culminated more than 15 years of perseverance and dedication, as Nike designers stuck with their idea until technology could catch up. The result was a cushioning and stability system worthy of joining Nike Air as the industry’s gold standard.
Just as Nike’s products have evolved, so has Nike’s approach to marketing. The 2002 “Secret Tournament” campaign was Nike’s first truly integrated, global marketing effort. Departing from the traditional “big athlete, big ad, big product” formula, Nike created a multi-faceted consumer experience in support of the World Cup.
“Secret Tournament” incorporated advertising, the Internet, public relations, retail and consumer events to create excitement for Nike’s soccer products and athletes in a way no single ad could ever achieve. This new integrated approach has become the cornerstone for Nike marketing and communications.
Today, Nike continues to seek new and innovative ways to develop superior athletic products, and creative methods to communicate directly with our consumers. Nike Free, Nike+ and Nike Sphere are just three examples of this approach.