Running shoes weren’t always as stylish and comfortable as they are today. Often made by tire companies, sneakers were clunky, cumbersome, and prone to making feet bleed after long runs. Track coach Bill Bowerman changed all that, perfecting a shoe that could stand up to the rigors of elite athletics. Along with Phil Knight, Bowerman co-founded Nike in 1964. From footwear to apparel, the company has become a global institution and advertising giant that owns more than two-thirds of the U.S. footwear market. Take a look at some facts behind the Swoosh.
1. EARLY NIKE PROTOTYPES WERE MADE FROM FISH AND KANGAROO.
Bowerman (above) was a University of Oregon track coach in the 1950s who disliked the design of track shoes. Aside from imported German designs, most sneakers offered poor support and didn't give runners what they needed in a shoe. Bowerman experimented with designs of his own, enlisting a local cobbler to educate him. He tried kangaroo leather, velvet, deer hide, and fish skin in early prototypes, using student track athlete Phil Knight as a guinea pig.
2. THE COMPANY WAS FORMED FOR A COLLEGE ASSIGNMENT.
Knight attended the University of Oregon before moving on to Stanford in 1960. In one class, Knight was challenged to come up with a business plan. Assuming better shoes could be made more cost-efficiently in Japan, he proposed a footwear brand that used foreign labor and would be marketed to high school and college athletes. By 1964, Knight and Bowerman had conceived of and opened Blue Ribbon Sports, an import distributor of the Japanese Onitsuka Tiger track shoe. Bowerman took the goods and tweaked them for runners, and Knight sold them out of his car trunk.
3. THE SWOOSH COST THEM JUST $35.
When Knight felt Blue Ribbon needed a stronger brand identity, he reached out to a student at Portland State University, where he had been teaching accounting. Carolyn Davidson agreed to work up some possible designs, including a “checkmark,” or swoosh, that Knight could present to visiting Onitsuka executives in 1971. While Knight “didn’t love it,” Blue Ribbon eventually settled on the logo and paid Davidson the agreed-upon fee of $35 for the work.
4. THE LOGO CAME BEFORE THE NAME.
After acquiring the Swoosh, Blue Ribbon was due for a name change. Knight lobbied to call the company Dimension 6, while others favored Bengal. Employee Jeff Johnson preferred Nike, the Greek goddess of victory. The name had come to him in his sleep and fit an article he had read on provocative brand names that included letters like Z and K. Knight didn’t like it, but manufacturing deadlines forced him to come to a quick decision.
5. THE FIRST OFFICIAL NIKE SHOE WAS PRONE TO DISINTEGRATING.
The first sneaker to be sold with the logo and company name was a football cleat in 1971. The shoe was manufactured in the warm climate of New Mexico, and the company hadn’t thought to test it in more frigid temperatures. When athletes in winter conditions started using it, the sole quickly cracked in two. Nike was forced to offer most of the 10,000 pairs it produced for $7.95 as a closeout sale.
6. A WAFFLE IRON INSPIRED A CLASSIC SHOE.
Bowerman was constantly on the hunt for sneaker designs that could improve traction and absorb energy. He was eating a waffle one day when he thought that the same grid pattern—only pushed forward, instead of depressed—could be something useful. Bowerman poured urethane into his family’s waffle maker but forgot the non-stick spray and glued it shut. The idea stuck, however, and Nike’s Waffle Trainer became a hit in 1974.
7. KNIGHT ENCOURAGED EMPLOYEE SHOUTING MATCHES.
Early Nike employees characterized the office atmosphere as being like a fraternity, with the mostly male staff inclined to call one another “buttfaces” and partake in tequila fountains. Knight also seemed to enjoy when staff would argue over sports, encouraging raised voices. By 1995, when employees began leaving the older attitudes behind, Knight said the company was “not as fun” as it used to be.
8. THEY LIKED CONTROVERSY.
Nike drew early media attention for sponsoring Ilie Nastase, a foul-tempered Romanian tennis player. Picking up on the counterculture athlete endorsement potential, the company later aligned itself with Charles Barkley shortly after the NBA player was criticized for spitting on a fan. Knight also sent $25,000 to ice skater Tonya Harding to help pay her legal bills after the 1994 Winter Olympics scandal involving Nancy Kerrigan.
9. THE BEATLES TOOK THEM TO COURT.
In one of the earliest examples of a Beatles song being used in a commercial, Nike licensed “Revolution” for one of their Air Max sneaker ads in 1987. The band cried foul, saying that they don’t “peddle sneakers or panty hose,” and sued for $15 million. EMI-Capitol, which negotiated rights to the group’s song catalog, maintained they had the ability to grant permission for the spot. Nike protested and continued to air the commercial before letting the campaign fade out in 1988.
10. THEIR SLOGAN WAS INSPIRED BY A CONVICTED KILLER.
Before being shot to death by a firing squad in Utah in 1977, convicted murderer Gary Gilmore's last words were, “Let’s do it.” A decade later, Nike ad agency executive Dan Wieden recalled this story while trying to think of a slogan for a new campaign. He wound up tweaking the words to “Just do it,” and the slogan stuck.
11. THEIR EARLY ADS WEREN'T FOR EVERYBODY.
Nike debuted their now-famous slogan in a 1987 ad campaign; one commercial featured triathlete Joanne Ernst reciting the line and following it up with, “And it wouldn’t hurt to stop eating like a pig, either.” The incendiary suggestion irritated female consumers, who had long been ignored by Nike during the 1980s aerobics craze. The company later tweaked their demographic-specific ads to be less offensive, successfully growing their female consumer base from 13 percent in 1990 to 20 percent in 1991.
12. MICHAEL JORDAN’S PARENTS HAD TO TALK HIM INTO MEETING WITH NIKE.
For much of his college and early professional career, Michael Jordan favored Adidas sneakers. When that company went through financial problems and was wavering over an endorsement offer, Jordan’s agent David Falk urged him to meet with Nike. Jordan refused, insisting he wanted to stick with Adidas. It wasn’t until the player’s parents convinced him to follow Falk’s advice that he flew to the company’s headquarters in Oregon to finalize a deal in 1984. It would be the first time Jordan ever wore a pair of Nikes.
13. THEY MAKE PLAYGROUND EQUIPMENT.
Recycled footwear can often wind up right back underneath your feet. The company’s Reuse-a-Shoe program takes the raw materials from sneakers to create playground surfaces, track flooring, and gym floor tiles. A basketball court could use up to 2,500 pairs.
14. THEY HAVE A TATTOOED TASK FORCE.
EKINs—"NIKE" spelled backwards—are designated company proselytizers who communicate with retailers and partners on the latest products and reinforce the brand's image. Die-hard EKINs are known for getting the logo tattooed somewhere on their body—Knight has his on his left ankle.