The history of Nike

Can a paper at a university push someone to start a sports shoe company that would soon conquer the world? In the case of Phil Knight, a junior student and middle distance runner, the answer is yes. It was a paper entitled "Can Japanese sneakers do to the Germans what the Japanese cameras did to the Americas?”. At the end of the semester, Knight knew what he wanted to do with his life.


At the same time, Bill Bowerman, a coach at the University of Oregon, had brought jogging to America by launching a groundbreaking runner training program. Knight, one of Bowerman's students, tried on the shoes his coach was making, but with no significant success. The two men often argued about the lack of a remarkable American running shoe that could compete with their German counterparts.

After a trip to Japan, where he studied local culture and religion, Knight returned to America determined to challenge Adidas's dominance. So, in 1964, the 26-year-old runner, together with his coach, invested $500 each - a collaboration that was sealed with a handshake - founding Blue Ribon Sports and started to import 300 pairs of sneakers from an unknown Japanese company, Onitsuka Tiger. Knight stored the shoes in the basement and then sold them with great success from the back seat of his car, during road races in high schools and colleges.

The first store opened next to a beauty salon in 1966 in California, but five years later the two partners, looking for a lighter, more elastic and durable shoe, decided to create their own line of shoes. What was missing, however, was a more commercial name, so Knight asked his 45 employees to write their proposal on a piece of paper and throw it in a hat. The idea for the name "Nike" (Knight had suggested the "Dimension Six"), from the Greek "Niki", the Greek winged goddess, came from a colleague of Knight, who saw the goddess in his dream.

A year later, the first Nike sneakers appeared with the logo of the goddess and by 1982, they had displaced Adidas from the top of the US sportswear market. 1972 saw the first major breakthrough when Bowerman designed a shoe that had a waffle-shaped sole - inspired by a waffle iron he had in his home kitchen, and in particular by the lines on its surface. He also managed to persuade several marathon runners to wear them during the Olympics in Oregon. Four of them finished in the top seven positions, something that was advertised by the company (for the record, the top three wore Adidas).

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In the mid-1980s, when Nike sales remained stagnant, a famous athlete was sought to "identify" with the company. A new basketball star was chosen, Michael Jordan, who, although he initially refused (when he saw the black and red shoes designed for him, said "I do not wear them, they have the colors of the devil"), nevertheless accepted proposal and signed a $2.5 million contract for five years.

With the slogan ‘’Just Do It’’, one of the top five slogans of the 20th century (inspired by the last words, "Let's do it" by a death row inmate), Nike managed to get to the top.

Recognizing the value of its brand name, Nike soon expanded to other areas, from cycling shoes to plain, casual wear. In America, in fact, Niketowns began to emerge, huge shopping malls for the company's products, where there were even small basketball courts for visitors to try on the shoes they wanted to buy.

The omnipotence of Nike was shaken in 1996, when a scandal arose over the inhumane working conditions prevailing at its factory in Indonesia. A photo in Life magazine showed a young boy sewing a Nike ball, infuriating public opinion which boycotted the firms shoes, as Jordan's contract was equivalent to 44,492 years of work by an Indonesian worker. With the pressure hitting up, Knight took a series of corrective actions in order to cement the reputation of his company that had been damaged.

Today, the wing of Apteros Niki is one of the most recognizable in the world. Caroline Davidson, the designer of the famous logo, had then received as a reward only $35 from Knight, who was not enthusiastic enough about her work. "I do not like it, but I will get used to it," he told her then. However, in 1988 he invited her to a dinner party, where he gave her a gold ring with the Nike brand, as well as an insignificant amount of stocks…

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John Protopapadakis is a marketing and customer service expert. He is a professor, an author (has written 20 business books so far) and a seminar instructor.

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