How storytelling is at the heart of the Nike brand

A new book on Nike, published by Phaidon, demonstrates the core role that marketing and storytelling play at the sportswear brand, and – as this extract reveals – how the Air Max shoe came to define its future approach

Walk down any city street, and it will only be a matter of minutes – maybe even seconds – before you spot a Nike Swoosh. Over the course of its near 50-year life span the logomark has become a ubiquitous addition to our visual landscape, so easily identified that for half of that time it has stood alone, without supporting typography, to represent the Nike brand.

The mark had relatively humble origins: it was created in 1971 by Portland State University graphic design student Carolyn Davidson as a freelance project for Phil Knight (who taught accounting classes at the school until 1969). The Swoosh first appeared in the same year on a pair of football boots called The Nike, and in 1972 on the first line of Nike footwear produced by Blue Ribbon Sports, the company Knight and Bill Bowerman initially co-founded to distribute athletic shoes from Japan. However, it wasn’t until 1978, as Blue Ribbon Sports ventured further into creating its own designs, that the company changed its name to Nike, Inc. It’s impossible to imagine Davidson – even in her wildest dreams – had any notion that her work would one day be imbued with so much meaning for so many people around the world.

In the 2002 book The Brand Gap, author Marty Neumeier explains that the idea of a brand is little more than a collective amalgam of people’s gut feelings about a product, service, or company. “When enough individuals arrive at the same gut feeling,” he writes, “a company can be said to have a brand. In other words, a brand is not what you say it is. It’s what they say it is.” Companies that excel at marketing understand that everything they do – every product, every communication, every conceivable point of contact with a customer or potential customer, and even their corporate policies and practices – contributes to this perception. While this has long been the case at Nike, the success of its brand building has come through an ability to foster connection through emotive storytelling.

Top: Air Max advertisement, c 1987-95; Above: Branding development by Carolyn Davidson, 1970s. All images: © Nike, Inc.
Phil Knight, 1970s
Original Nike shoebox, c 1971

Teams at Nike have long understood that harnessing emotion in service of storytelling is a far more effective strategy for brand building than rattling off features and benefits. “Why do people get married—or do anything?” Phil Knight posited to the Harvard Business Review in 1992. “Because of emotional ties. That’s what builds long-term relationships with the consumer, and that’s what our campaigns are about. Our advertising tries to link consumers to the Nike brand through the emotions of sports and fitness. We show competition, determination, achievement, fun, and even the spiritual rewards of participating in those activities.”

While at the outset Nike considered itself production oriented, with success or failure predicated on the design and manufacture of innovative products, by the time of the aforementioned Knight interview, the company had undergone an incredibly consequential shift. “We’ve come around to saying that Nike is a marketing-oriented company,” Knight said, “and the product is our most important marketing tool. What I mean is that marketing knits the whole organisation together. The design elements and functional characteristics of the product itself are just part of the overall marketing process.” This new perspective was crucial to the company’s development into one of the most recognisable global brands. Even more remarkable, the shift can be largely attributed to the launch of one of the most consequential designs in Nike’s history: Air Max.

It may seem difficult to comprehend in retrospect, but by the mid-1980s, Nike was in the midst of an identity crisis. The company’s technical, performance-based output was being outpaced by more casual designs and aerobics-based footwear from the competition. Nike’s attempts to branch out had missed the mark. There were layoffs, and the future was by no means certain. Tinker Hatfield – a champion pole-vaulter turned architect turned shoe designer – kept coming back to an idea that had occurred to him in Paris while looking at Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers’s Centre Pompidou.

The Ten: Nike x Virgil Abloh Collection campaign range, 2017
Spreads from the Phaidon Nike book. Photo: Sean Davidson

Hatfield was struck not only by the juxtaposition of the alien Modernist structure with Paris’s classic Beaux-Arts buildings (and the fact that whether you loved or hated it, you couldn’t help but notice it) but by the architects’ philosophical underpinning. If you could turn a building inside out, why not a pair of shoes? “That gave birth to Visible Air,” the designer recounts. “You could see what made [the Air Max] different, what made it work better, and, therefore, made it more interesting and more overtly storytelling oriented.”

When it came time to launch the Air Max, the organisation knew that it would take more than a great design to overcome the headwinds the business was facing. For the televised campaign, the company turned to now long-time agency partners Wieden + Kennedy, based in Portland, Oregon. Co-directors Paula Greif and Peter Kagan, who had helped define the look and feel of the burgeoning MTV network, were recruited to create a spot that would offer more vibe than narrative.

The briskly paced 60-second advertisement cut grainy Super 8 film of Nike stars Michael Jordan and John McEnroe with footage of amateur athletes, including Nike employees, competing in a variety of sporting events – punctuated repeatedly by a clip of the Air Max Air unit compressing under the weight of a runner’s foot strike. Most notably, the Beatles’ fuzz-drenched and overdriven recording of Revolution blared without interruption for the entirety of the commercial. As Knight explained, “We wanted to communicate not just a radical departure in shoes but a revolution in the way Americans felt about fitness, exercise, and wellness.”

Phaidon Nike book. Photo: Sean Davidson

Unlike anything that had come before, the advertisement struck a chord. It may seem hard to believe now, but at the time original versions of classic songs by famous bands were rarely used in commercials – to say nothing of a smash hit by the most famous band of all time. Although Nike negotiated with Capitol Records and Yoko Ono – who was responsible for her late husband John Lennon’s estate – to use the song, the remaining Beatles, through their publisher, Apple Records, objected to the usage and sued the company for US$15 million. “We got sued, and that made everything even more cool, because Yoko Ono got to fight with the rest of the Beatles,” Hatfield reminisces. “The whole thing hit the market and was like a rocket ship. And Nike really hasn’t stopped growing ever since.”

This is an extract from Nike: Better is Temporary by Sam Grawe, published by Phaidon, £69.95;