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Marketing Muscle
Nike rewrote the rules of the game.


When University of Oregon running coach Bill Bowerman poured rubber onto a waffle iron one day in 1971, he had no idea he was about to change the world of sports. He was just looking for a better running shoe. But together with former UO track star Phil Knight, Bowerman founded a venture they would eventually name after the Greek goddess of victory.

Today Nike may be more famous as the goddess of marketing. Its shoes have become the gold standard of sports, and its trademark Swoosh is as recognizable as the Stars and Stripes or even the Golden Arches--an ironic accomplishment for a company whose president's first words to ad-man Dan Wieden were, "Hi, I'm Phil Knight, and I hate advertising."

That was in 1980, and ever since then, the Nike-Wieden & Kennedy partnership has been creating soulful ads consumers couldn't help but fall in love with. Early ads, like "Instant Karma," went straight to the softening hearts of once-rebellious baby boomers, with help from John Lennon's song. Gritty images of the ennobling

power of sport flashed over the lyrics: You better get yourself together, darlin'. Join the human race.

In the ad, herds of ordinary people are shown running, a woman does sit-ups in a dark gym, a long-legged basketball player perches atop a backboard, joyfully sinking baskets. In the early hours and on empty streets, the ad says, the world can be yours, regular people and famous athletes alike.

Stuart Elliot, advertising columnist at The New York Times, remembers the moment when ad campaigns like "Instant Karma" and "Revolution" hit the industry. "There was something utterly new about the attitude and the tone," he says. "The way in which they targeted the serious athlete, the confident, jocular attitude, the tongue-in-cheek style that's smart, sassy and smart-alecky--but not too smart-alecky. The use of black athletes at a time when the industry was shying away from them. And then this whole low-key way they had of under-selling everything."

The ads convinced us that working out was a way to both create communities and forge connections to the cycles of life: And we all shine on, like the moon and the stars and the sun...Who the hell do you think you are--a superstar? Well, right you are. The inner superstar, the one who wasn't watching TV, ate it up. The ads reached places it was thought a commercial could never get to, places reserved for music, art or love.

In the early '90s, Nike began to get a little karmic retribution of its own. The company's anti-establishment attitude started to look a lot like corporate arrogance. Operation Push launched a national boycott against the company, accusing it of practicing "corporate apartheid" by not hiring enough blacks. (Although the boycott fizzled, Nike later brought black coach John Thompson onto its board, featured Spike Lee in its ads and amped up its charitable giving.)

Then, in 1996, the simmering debate over working conditions in Third World countries boiled over, culminating in Knight's announcement in 1998 of a new independent monitoring plan for Nike's Asian factories and a 25 percent wage hike for workers five months later.

Considering the care with which Nike guards the image of its products, it was strange that its corporate profile should end up on so many dartboards. But in the final analysis, manufacturing at Nike has always run a distant second to marketing.

In his 1994 book Just Do It, Donald Katz wrote that the sportswear company, through a massive combination of advertising and global marketing, has done nothing less than "change the look and sound and feel and even the abiding fantasies of everyday life."
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Willamette Week | originally published November 10, 1999


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