Whether you view it as an inspirational rallying cry or a bullying command, the slogan ‘Just Do It’ is hard to avoid in modern life. Accompanied by the familiar Nike swoosh, it appears on bags, T-shirts and billboards all over the world. As a statement it sums up the sports brand: it is competitive, forceful, direct, as lean and powerful as the athletes that appear alongside it in Nike’s ads.
Above: Nike’s first dedicated women’s campaign appeared in 1991 and linked women playing sports with a new kind of female empowerment
Considering how intrinsic to the brand it now seems, the slogan had inauspicious beginnings. It was created in 1987 by Wieden + Kennedy to accompany Nike’s first major television campaign, which included commercials for running, walking, cross-training, basketball and women’s fitness. “Each spot was developed by a different creative team and was markedly different from the others,” remembers Dan Wieden, founder of the agency and author of the Nike line. “In reviewing the work the night before the client presentation, I felt we needed a tagline to give some unity to the work, one that spoke to the hardest hardcore athletes as well as those talking up a morning walk.”
Wieden drew on a surprising source for inspiration. In Doug Pray’s 2009 documentary about advertising, Art & Copy, he confesses that the idea for the line was sparked by the last words of convicted murderer Gary Gilmore, who said “Let’s do it!” to the firing squad before his execution. This may not be quite the brand heritage that Nike would ideally have chosen, yet at the time such matters were largely irrelevant, as nobody was convinced that the tagline was even necessary, let alone had any inkling of the impact it would have.
“Creatives in the agency all questioned if we really needed it,” says Wieden now. “Nike questioned it. I said, ‘Look, I think we do. I believe we have too many disparate commercials that don’t add up to anything without a tagline. I’m not married to the thing. We can drop it next round.’ A lot of shrugged shoulders, but they let it ride.”
The response from audiences was definitive. “The general public surprised us all,” Wieden continues. “Immediately Nike started getting letters, phone calls, so did Wieden + Kennedy.
For some reason that line resonated deeply in the athletic community and just as deeply with people who had little or no connection to sports.” For some, it became a doctrine to live by. Nike then picked up on this in some of its advertising, particularly in a series of posters aimed at women that allied a commitment to sports with female empowerment. A TV commercial in 1995 further reiterated the message. The spot stars a number of girls and young women speaking directly to camera and pronouncing a series of statements: “If you let me play sports, I will like myself more…. I will have more self-confidence…. I will be 60% less likely to get breast cancer…. I will suffer less depression….I will be more likely to leave a man who beats me….I will be less likely to get pregnant before I want to….I will learn what it means to be strong.” The ad concludes with the slogan, ‘Just Do It’.
Nike continues to use the tagline across much of its advertising and branding today. “‘Just Do It’ is still as relevant to us as a brand today as it was 23 years ago,” says Davide Grasso, VP of global brand marketing at Nike. “It has been translated into many, many languages,” he continues. “One of my favourite examples is this one: The American Foundation for the Blind gave Nike the 1995 Access Award for its creation and distribution of a ‘Just Do It’ poster done in braille.”
Interestingly, Nike itself does not see the line as simply a slogan, but more as a brand identity or philosophy. “We actually don’t believe in slogans,” says Grasso. “Instead, what we’ve found to be most effective is inviting people to join us in what we believe in and what we stand for. And what we stand for is to serve and honour athletes.
“I think that’s why ‘Just Do It’ has had such an impact over the last 20 years and continues to. It’s genuine and speaks to our core mission.”