How does Nike succeed to always jump the curve? Semiotics and Culture.

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It is always dangerous to write about companies when you have no special access, but I thought it was worth doing some homework on one of the brands to seem to have a track record of success in curve jumping. And maybe there is something we can learn from it.

Stage 1:

Nike, originally known as Blue Ribbon Sports (BRS), was founded by  Philip Knight and Bill Bowerman in January 1964. The company initially operated as a distributor for Japanese shoe maker Onitsuka Tiger (now ASICS), making most sales at track meets out of Knight's automobile

Stage 2:

Went in-house and started manufacturing shoes. Allegedly the first pair was manufactured using a waffle iron. Of course since then they have built up a world-renowned supply chain that has survived all the sweetshop scandals and continues to deliver.

Stage 3:

Consciously and overtly focused on creating the brand – rather than merely advertising their products. Their first efforts in 1976 were successful, but it was in 1988 that the Just Do It campaign idea and brand creative was conceived. Interestingly, the ‘swoosh’ was created by Caroline Davidson (an advertising student at Portland State University) in 1971 for only $35.

Stage 4:
Retail & Distribution
 was resolved and they opened their own stores – not so much as retail spaces but as brand experience domains. Eventually the stores became somewhat more traditional as the company rolled out in non-flagship locations.

Stage 5:

Nike has recently launched Fuelband – which seems to point to their strategic thinking. Jeremiah Owyang points out, named this as an emerging disruptive technology, and is termed Quantified Self. (Also called wearable computing, these body reading sensors harvest, analyse, and provide insight to how our bodies are working.)

How does NIKE do this?

Their history suggests that they have a track record of making good, successive strategic decisions. Every organisation eventually gets it wrong, but they have shown remarkable perspicacity in a fickle and extremely competitive industry.

I think the partial answer to their continued success lies in their tagline, which is a piece of copywriting & creative genius from When Dan Wieden of Wieden+Kennedy.

As an external observer, it appears as if the brand has become synonymous with the culture of the organisation. And if I am right, then the semiotics of the design is revealing.

The swoosh:

Originally it was conceived to represent the wing of the Greek Goddess (of Victory) NIKE.

Additionally, it also very fluid and dynamic shape – that suggests flexibility and non-conformity.

(Interestingly, they have underplayed ‘victory’ as a brand element and managed to define victory as something that is personal to the buyer/ brand user. This is fortuitous as we are entering the ‘WE’ era… and mainstream brands that are positioned as ‘ME’ brands are in for a torrid time.)

Paradoxically, the brand still manages to convey that it is a ‘tick’ which conveys multiple meanings:

  • a tick of approval (positive)
  • authorised by (which lends authority to the brand as an arbiter of right and wrong)
  • the right thing (as in not wrong)

The ‘swoosh’ is also a progressive shape that points to the future in an upward motion – and conveys the idea of action.

The tagline

It has an interesting history:

The unlikely inspiration was the story of a killer Gary Gilmore, who had received the death penalty for murdering two people in Utah in 1976. Just before a firing squad did their duty, Gilmore was asked if he had any last words. “Let’s do it,” he simply said. When Dan Wieden wanted to create a tagline for Nike a decade later, Gilmore’s words came to mind. “Let’s” was changed to “Just” to add a dash of emphasis.

But, in my humble opinion, the final stroke of genius was adding the full stop to the tagline. Punctuation marks are actually quite rare brand creative because it generally distracts. In their case they actually included the full stop.

This suggests that it is the final word. Nothing to follow: no arguments, no excuses. JUST DO IT.

And that is exactly what Nike has been doing for many decades, and it has allowed them to jump the curve at every inflection point.

And that is the secret of jumping the curve: it requires you to actually jump – not just think about it.