Nike, the Greek goddess of victory, is the inspiration behind the most iconic athletic brand in the world. The infamous swoosh has branded athletes for years. What appears to be a simple swoosh mark, is actually an icon worth billions. The worth of the Nike swoosh isn’t due to an innovative or intricate shape, but rather the meaning it conveys to people all over the world. Symbolizing strength, dedication, talent and victory, Nike has placed itself on some of the best athletes in the world. Nike’s successful branding can be attributed to how they use that shape to create an idea, emotion, or portray a value to all people no matter their language, gender or nationality. All over the world, the Nike swoosh is a complex symbol that has evolved over several decades.
Nike began as Blue Ribbon Sports and operated as a distributor for Onitsuka Tiger, a Japanese shoemaker. It wasn’t until Bill Bowerman, a track-and-field coach, and Phil Knight, a runner for the University of Oregon, used their passion for athletics to uncover an untouched potential in the sportswear market.
Phil Knight, founder of Nike, had originally wanted to call the company “Dimension 6.” However, Jeff Johnson, Nike’s first employee, suggested a name that could convey a deeper meaning. The Nike name comes from the Greek goddess of victory. In addition to its name, the founders realized the importance of symbols and slogans. The Nike swoosh was designed by Portland State University student Carolyn Davidson. She created the swoosh to indicate motion and replicate the “swoosh” sound when someone speeds by. Finally, they landed on the slogan, “Just Do It.” Between the name, swoosh symbol and slogan, Nike began to create a brand that means something deeper than just clothing and athletic wear.
Nike began with this strong purpose. Therefore, they didn’t create a company solely based on running shoes, but rather, on sharing what they believed in. By promoting healthy living, exercise and athletics for all people, they tapped into this market that was previously left out by other brands. In order to sell their ideology, Nike created the infamous swoosh and slogan, “Just Do It.”
Among Adidas, Puma and Reebok, Nike had to find a new niche. Although successful in their own way, each of these brands served small and narrow markets. These companies positioned themselves in the same location, catering to professional athletes.
When the company officially became Nike Inc. in 1971, they had to be innovative and reach a different market than what the well-established companies were accommodating. During this time, a new era for athletic clothing emerged, allowing Nike to develop an innovative brand marketing strategy.
To take their branding a step further and to promote their products, athletic wear brands began reaching out to athletes to endorse their clothing. At an early stage in his career, Nike made a bold move to sponsor Michael Jordan. In 1984, Nike signed Michael Jordan for $500,000 for 5 years; an unheard of number at the time. This daring move would pay off quickly. As a rookie, Jordan changed the face of basketball. The Air Jordan was released in March of 1985 and by May, Nike’s revenues for the shoe reached $70 million. The Air Jordan franchise raked in $100 million in revenues by the end of the same year. In the company’s annual report that year, Knight called it “the perfect combination of quality product, marketing and athlete endorsement.” The Jordan brand continued to do well for decades. In 2012, Nike sold $2.5 billion worth of shoes at retail.
The astronomical success of Air Jordans was during the start of Nike’s sponsorships. Arguably more than any other industry, athletic wear relies on brand ambassadors and sponsorships. The company caught a glimpse into the great potential that endorsing athletes provide and continues to sign sponsorship contracts to this day. Since the successful start of Nike’s marketing tactic, they have committed to over $6 billion in sports deals with teams, colleges, leagues and athletes.
These sponsorships were an extension of the Nike name and swoosh icon. Top athletes such as Michael Jordan, LeBron James and Cristiano Ronaldo perform in Nike gear. With the goddess of victory as Nike’s muse, one could interpret these athletes as symbols of gods and goddesses in our culture. They have become godly icons who are worshipped by the masses. As they race up the court or score the game winning goal, the simple swoosh embroidered on their jersey embodies a new complex meaning. Just as Nike is the Greek goddess of victory, the swoosh symbolizes victory as well. All over the world, people can look at the swoosh and associate it with the athletic brand as well as the values, beliefs and ideals that it represents.
The Nike swoosh on the shoes and jerseys is as engrained in the viewers’ minds as is the historic moments of athletic grandeur that occur by the world’s best and most idolized athletes. The simple symbol transforms into a sign of victory, strength, hard work, dedication, talent and success. The swoosh and the Nike goddess of victory are personified through these athletes.
Since the founding of Nike and its branding tactics, the Nike swoosh is an indication of victory. This idea and value of victory was founded on athletic abilities. Although Nike was created to fit a more general audience, it tapped into a human desire to be the best and succeed just like the athletic gods and goddesses that we watch from the stands. The victorious nature of athletes that we admire and even envy seem more replicable when the athletic wear that they perform in is available to everyone. It creates an idea that if we can wear the same athletic wear that our idols wear, that we too can achieve greatness and victory. This simple swoosh is a more complex idea that embodies our human value of success and achievement. It becomes a pendant signifying to ourselves, our competitors and onlookers, that we are victorious in our athletic endeavors.
The convergence of several new trends in American culture created the perfect atmosphere to lay the foundation for the Nike Empire. In the 1970s, athletic sportswear began to evolve from a product line aimed at athletes into a mainstream fashion product. A clear divide between functionality and style, performance and fashion began to blur as casual dress became more acceptable. This all began when the mainstream clothing market began to value comfort and practicality. The need for fashionable yet comfortable shoes gave Nike an opportunity to convert sports shoes and apparel into a fashion statement. This shift focused on ordinary people rather than professional athletes. Since the 70s, wearing athletic wear as casual wear is becoming more common. The shift of athletic wear being worn as casual wear was not previously embraced in Nike marketing and branding tactics. However, pop culture trends are signifying new trends and values. One of the biggest indicators is the rise of social media. The Pew Research Center began tracking social media adoption in 2005 and found that only 5% of American adults used at least one social media platform. That share rose to half of all Americans by 2011 and today, 69% of the public uses some social media platform. The rise in social media also gives rise to new gods and goddesses to be worshiped. Fame that has been perpetuated through social media shows social media’s grip on society. Flawless pictures of models on Instagram become our new goal. Our new goddesses and icons are young, beautiful models.
The Nike swoosh remains a symbol of victory. However, as pop culture evolves, so do Nike’s sponsorships. In today’s culture, we value victory not just in athletics but in appearance and popularity. As athletic wear is being worn more as casual wear, Nike, as well as other athletic wear brands, are turning to popular models and public figures to sponsor their brand. Kylie Jenner for Puma, Gigi Hadid for Reebok, Kendall Jenner for Adidas, and Bella Hadid for Nike. This shift in athletic wear branding shows an important shift in modern culture. What once symbolized victory in physical performance is now symbolizing victory in beauty and popularity.
Although athletes are still admired and worshipped all across the world, we are beginning to see a new icon emerge. Millions of people follow models, bloggers and beautiful people who create an ideal life in a matter of words and a perfectly staged picture. Phones are as much a part of us as any body part and our social media is a portrayal of our identity. In today’s world, posts and pictures are used to represent our lives and how we want to be viewed by others. To portray our best selves, we imitate the ones who have millions of followers, likes and adoring comments. The models and people who seem to have it all: beauty, popularity, fun and money.
The use of models and celebrities as brand influencers shows another important development in Nike marketing. Rather than marketing to everyone in one campaign and style; they are embracing today’s value of individualism. Not everyone is an athlete and some don’t aspire to be. Instead of leaving them out, Nike reaches out to a lifestyle influencer to reach more potential consumers. This emphasizes today’s culture of being unified while also embracing individuality and our differences. Not everyone is the same; but everyone can be a part of something bigger than themselves. Everyone can wear the Nike swoosh as victors in their own way.
Just like the perfect sports moments that are broadcast and published for millions to see, social media success is visible to millions. In today’s culture, we are valuing both. We want to be seen and idolized just like those we revere. Whether on a sports god or social media god, the Nike swoosh is visible. It’s a mark of success and victory. By slipping on the Nike shoes, we believed we could achieve our athletic dreams. Now, however, as we slip on our Nike shirt, we are indicating that we are victorious in much more. We can find victory in beauty, fashion and popularity. To fit in and to be successful are some of our most deeply held human desires. Nike has uncovered that need and uses the simple swoosh to mean something so much more complex. It is isn’t a simple swoosh. It is success. Acceptance. Victory.
Among hundreds of current competitors, Nike holds on to its majority market share by holding on to the strong brand image it was built on. As the marketing landscape has changed since the 1970s, so has the Nike marketing strategy. From its genesis, Nike learned how to develop on the cusp of new trends and values. As things continue to constantly change, Nike innovates, adapts and changes their clothing and marketing tactics to maintain its strong hold on the industry. As it approaches new trends and values, it embraces and leverages its core identity and brand – never losing sight of their customer-centric messaging and constantly adapting their Nike swoosh to symbolize victory in what we value most. The Nike brand owes its $28.1 billion net worth to its ability to differentiate itself from its hundreds of competitors through its simple symbol; the Nike swoosh. Across the world, the Nike swoosh will always be a symbol of victory. But what we value victory in depends on pop culture and changes in society.