History of Nike: The Story Behind the Famous Brand

Nike, the famous shoe brand that has become a household name in sports and fashion, has been around for over 60 years. It’s the brand that is still seen as the epitome of cool, even if you’re not into sports. But what do you know about this company? The company’s history is full of interesting twists, turns, and other little-known facts that you might not have heard about before.

In this blog post, we’ll explore the history of Nike, from its humble beginnings as a small business in Oregon to its current status as an international giant. We’ll also discuss how Nike’s advertising strategies have evolved and contributed to its success.

Foundation of Nike as Blue Ribbon Sports 

The history of Nike began in 1964 when Phil Knight joined the University of Oregon and met Bill Bowerman. At that time, Knight started running track and field events for the school’s team—which put him in touch with Bowerman, whom he was coaching at UO. Bowerman’s obsession with style and fit prompted him to learn from a local cobbler how to experiment with new models of running shoes. He did so frequently.

At first, Knight tried Bowerman’s footwear out among his peers. They were a hit—so much so that teammate Otis Davis wore them in the 1960 Olympics and 400-meter sprint.

After his graduation from the University of Oregon, Knight enrolled in the MBA program at Stanford and wrote an essay advocating for the relocation of running-shoe manufacturing—from Germany to Japan—in order to take advantage of reduced labor prices. Knight visited Japan in 1962 after graduating and signed an agreement with several Japanese businessmen that allowed him to bring their well-known Tiger shoes into the US.

Coach Bowerman offered his support for Knight’s business plan, and as a result, the two men founded Blue Ribbon Sports on January 25, 1964, in Eugene, Oregon.

Journey from Blue Ribbon Sports to Nike

Knight returned to the United States and started Blue Ribbon Sports, which he ran out of his car until he was able to open a storefront. It soon became apparent that this would be an attractive market for a company selling high-quality shoes at lower prices than industry leaders Adidas and Puma. 

Despite the conflict that arose between Blue Ribbon and its Japanese supplier as a result of Bowerman’s constant creation of new shoe designs, Tiger Cortez was a huge success because it possessed all of the qualities associated with warmth—trustworthiness, style. 

After Tiger Cortez’s success, relations between Tiger and Blue Ribbon deteriorated, leading to the separation between the two companies. 

Blue Ribbon Sports was renamed Nike after parting ways with Tiger, a named suggested by Jeff Johnson based on his dream about Greek goddesses of victory, although Phil Knight wanted to rename the company Dimension 6.

Creation of Nike Logo

Nike’s famous swoosh was originally designed by a graduate student, Davis, at Portland State University. Company founder Phil Knight initially did not like the logo as not fitting with his image, but later changed his mind and made the logo an integral part of Nike’s brand.

Davis designed the logo for $35 with a rate of $2 per hour. It wasn’t until 1983 that Davis received any additional compensation for designing Nike’s logo; at a party hosted by Phil Knight, she was given 500 shares worth around $1 million.

Release of First Nike Shoes 

The Nike “Moon Shoe” creation is said to be a result of Bill Bowerman’s inspiration at breakfast when he was eating waffles. He wondered if it would be easier to play sports with the waffle’s grooves. To test this theory, he made several attempts with the waffle iron. He created an almost instantly popular product because of its gripping design—the Waffle Trainer! The first Nike sneaker was a prototype, and it sold at auction for nearly half a million dollars.

The first Nike shoe sold in stores was a more sophisticated version of the “Moon Shoe” worn by athletes at US track competitions—the so-called “Nike Waffle Racer.”

The pair gained success when the initial design was dubbed the “Aztec”; however, due to Adidas holding a trademark on this name and having a release of their sneaker with similar branding, Nike had no choice but rename—and honor Aztec history by doing so. Nike renamed Aztec as Cortez. 

The Cortez was a huge hit when it debuted in the Mexico Games, with its cutting-edge design and technology. It helped propel Nike to become the world’s largest footwear company.

Nike Advertising Era

Nike recruited John Brown and Partners in 1976 to gain more exposure when it was ready for expansion. “There is No Finish Line” was Nike’s first brand ad, a year later. Although it didn’t feature any Nike sneakers up close, this ad helped push the company to greater heights.

In 1982, Nike hired Weiden+Kennedy as its worldwide advertising agency to help it expand into additional countries. After working on several print and television commercials during the 1980s, Dan Weiden devised the catchphrase “Just Do It” for an ad campaign in 1988. Weiden quotes murderer Gary Gilmore, notorious for his final words before execution (“Let’s do it”), as the source of this phrase.

Nike Jordan Era

In 1984, 21-year-old Michael Jordan was signed by Nike for a yearly salary of $500,000—more than twice what Reebok or Converse were offering. The promise of a signature line for Michael Jordan prompted his signing with Nike, which created the Air Jordan.

During the negotiations, Jordan had worn a pair of Nike Air Ship shoes in several games. However, it was later prohibited because the colorway did not meet NBA requirements then, leading to Air Jordan 1.

The sneakers were created just for Michael Jordan, who wore them when he debuted as a professional basketball player. The sneakers were released to the public in April 1985. The shoe had a high-top design, the recognizable Nike Swoosh, and the “Bred” colorway in black and red.

Nike’s Domination through sports 

  • Nike opened its first Niketown chain store in 1990, with that location being in Portland, Oregon. These unique boutiques carried a wide selection of exclusive Nike merchandise and honored some sponsorships—including Michael Jordan.
  • In 1996, golfing superstar Tiger Woods joined the Nike roster. This approach allowed Nike to explore uncharted golfing waters and win over new global followers.
  • In 1997, Nike entered the skating market with a new line of sneakers capable of withstanding hard impacts. Nike’s popularity led them to expand into the skateboarding market in 2001, launching Nike SB. The company chose then to release a line of custom Dunks for its professional skaters soon after.
  • In 2003, Nike signed basketball players LeBron James and the late Kobe Bryant in an attempt to replicate the success it had with Michael Jordan. Nike became the top shoe sponsor of professional basketball by entering a sport where it previously had no presence.
  • In 2005, Rafael Nadal signed with Nike, creating his own sportswear line.
  • In 2008, Nike paid $580 million to buy Umbro, an apparel manufacturer known for its stylish football uniforms. Nike’s acquisition of the sports apparel lines owned by Umbro allowed it to expand its reach for football gear and related sportswear. 
  • In 2012 and 2015, Nike became the official supplier of equipment used by players, officials, and staff members in both the NFL and NBA.

Read More: The Ultimate Guide to Starting a Sneaker Collection

Controversies surrounding Nike

  1. Sweatshops

Nike’s labor policies have long been the subject of controversy. The business was created to manufacture high-quality goods with cheaper labor. 

Nike’s manufacturing relocated from Japan to countries with less expensive labor, including South Korea and China. As South Korea and Taiwan grew into more powerful economies, Nike shifted its attention to Vietnam, China, and Indonesia.

In 1991, Jeff Ballinger documented the terrible working conditions at Nike plants throughout Indonesia in a study. A short while afterwards, a story describing the life of an Indonesian Nike employee making 14 cents per hour was published in Harper’s Magazine.

The treatment of workers in sweatshops incited widespread anger, and media coverage greatly expanded.

In 1998, Nike responded to pressure from campus activists and fashion magazines by committing to improving factory conditions. It included raising the legal working age, tightening factory inspections, and implementing American clean air regulations.

  1. Colin Kaepernick

Nike made headlines by choosing Colin Kaepernick as its new leading spokesperson, tweeting about it on Labor Day.

Colin Kaepernick was the first football player to kneel while playing the national game to denounce police brutality against African Americans. He was hailed as a hero by some and denounced as “un-American” by others.

The image of Kaepernick in black and white bearing the slogan “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything,” and the former Nike tagline, “Just do it,” was a suitable advertisement for this brand-new endorsement agreement.

The response to the ad was mixed, with some people announcing a public boycott of Nike by posting videos online in which they set their sneakers on fire.  Following Nike’s controversial new campaign, many social media users mocked the company’s critics, and less than a month after its ad series launch, Nike stocks increased by more than $6 billion.

Green and Eco-friendly Movement of Nike 

Nike has made some progress toward environmental sustainability, but there is still more that it could be doing.

Most of the criticism has been directed at Nike for failing to eliminate dangerous materials from its supply chain. In addition to endangering the environment and anyone wearing Nike clothes, the hazardous chemicals also put workers at risk of poisoning.

Nike has made some progress in eliminating perfluorinated compounds (PFCs) from its products, with the percentage of PFC-free products increasing to 93% over the last few years.

Nike’s story is incredible, but it’s not over yet. The brand continues to grow, with new products and partnerships on the horizon. We can’t wait to see what the future holds for Nike!

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