What began as a master’s thesis, ended up becoming Nike, one of the most recognized brands in the world. Find out how Phil Knight, Nike founder identified his opportunity and realized his vision.
Exceptional Stories: Phil Knight, Nike founder and creator of Sports Marketing.
In 1957, Phil Knight and Bill Bowerman met at the University of Oregon; the first, runner and later graduate student athlete in business administration at Stanford University, California, and the second, renowned athletic trainer who continuously experimented with new designs for sports shoes.
Knight was always a visionary; in his graduate thesis at Stanford University he indicated that success was in designing a high-quality product in the United States, manufacturing it in Asia, and selling it in the United States at prices below the then popular East German sneakers.
In 1962, Knight contacted the Japanese company Onitsuka Tiger to market its products in the United States. Bowerman proposed to Knight to become a partner and provide his designs to Tiger and so, in 1964 and with an initial investment of $1,000, they placed their first order for 300 pairs of shoes. Knight created Blue Ribbon Sports and began selling them in Oregon, fulfilling his thesis. While Knight sold the shoes from the trunk of his car, Bowerman dismantled them to try to make them better and lighter.
Since they both held full-time jobs, Jeff Johnson, a colleague of Knight at Stanford, was hired as the company’s first full-time employee. Johnson was responsible for designing and creating the company’s initial marketing, coordinating its logistics system and establishing the remote ordering system. It was even he who, in 1971, introduced the name “Nike”, which means victory in Greek.
In the 1970s, Nike broke off relationships with Onitsuka and decided to launch its own footwear lines. In 1971 Knight commissioned student Carolyne Davidson to design a Nike logo. After giving him several sketches none of them convinced him, but because he needed to choose a logo for the boxes that were waiting to be printed, he took one of them pointing out that with time he would surely end up liking it.
During the 1972 Nationals Track & Field Trials, one of Bowerman’s designed shoes (inspired by his wife’s waffle press) aroused the special interest of runners who tested them because of their lightness and traction.
It was then when Nike placed college runner Steve Prefontaine as a symbol of its brand, gaining popularity with its successes. Even after graduating, he continued to act as the firm’s representative, moving around teams and universities and helping to shape the company’s culture. This practice of sponsoring promising athletes continues to this day and is a key part of Nike’s commercial success.
In the eighties Nike, with a contracted advertising agency – Wieden & Kennedy – began making commercials. And it was also in these years when among the young Americans it became fashionable to wear sneakers and casual clothes on the street, fashion that Nike knew how to make the most of.
In 1985, one of Nike’s key moments came when he decided to bet on basketball promise, Michael Jordan of North Carolina, who had recently joined the Chicago Bulls. Nike soon realized that Jordan was a gold mine and began designing an entire line of footwear inspired and advertised by Michael Jordan such as Air Jordan or Air Flight sneakers. The NBA considered these sneakers illegal, as they only allowed white and were black with red. As a result, Jordan had to pay $1,000 per game, but the controversy was such that it caused sales to soar. It was also during these years that Nike launched one of the most famous slogans in the history of advertising today – “Just Do it”.
Image is the hallmark of Nike’s success. Strong investments in advertising and sponsorship of famous sportsmen and women, such as Tiger Woods, the NFL and football teams around the world, ensure the company’s position as the number one seller of sporting goods worldwide.
Phil Knight, considered the creator of Sports Marketing, retired in 2004 (age 66) from Nike’s presidency, leaving a solid company with a strong reputation as the founder of Nike.