How storytelling built Nike’s shoe empire

Phil Knight hates advertising. You read that right. Phil Knight, the founder of Nike, hates advertising. The idea seems counterintuitive. Nike is one of the world’s most iconic brands ever. It’s hard to go anywhere without seeing the familiar Nike swoosh on someone’s shoes or a billboard. So how has a brand founded by someone who claimed to hate advertising become so iconic?

Thanks to Michael Hansen, Senior Director of Sports Marketing for Nike’s Global Division, we have the answer. Nike has developed a core brand strategy to drive everything they do as a company. This formula gives anyone trying to establish a their own brand some key tips and insights on how to make it powerful and memorable.

Tell a story

Phil Knight originally wanted to name his company “Division Six.” Fortunately, someone suggested the name Nike and it stuck. (Nike.com)

Phil Knight originally wanted to name his company “Division Six.” Fortunately, someone suggested the name Nike and it stuck. (Nike.com)

According to Dan Wieden, co-founder of Wieden and Kennedy, the first thing Knight said to them was “I do not believe in advertising.” Authenticity was extremely important to Knight. He believed that authenticity made a brand relevant to people.

To create advertising that Knight liked, Wieden and Kennedy market stories rather than product. These stories surround the athletes Nike sponsors, from the Air Jordan I being banned by the NBA to Rory McIlroy golfing alongside his childhood hero, Tiger Woods. Nike wants to tell stories in ways that “compel you to action,” said Hansen. “The reason that ‘Just Do It’ is one of the most resonating taglines in marketing history is because it compels you.”

What lesson does this carry for those struggling to establish a brand? A brand exists to call consumers to action. This can be seen over and over in the world’s most iconic brands. Apple, Nike, Facebook, Coca-Cola and others don’t just ask consumers to buy products. Successful brands create meaningful connections with consumers. Mark Parker, the CEO of Nike, has said, “Connecting used to be, ‘Here’s some product, and here’s some advertising. We hope you like it.’ Connecting today is a dialogue.” What stories can your brand tell?

Product is king

Rory McIlroy grew up wearing Nike and following Tiger Woods. Today, he and Tiger are two of over 8000 athletes sponsored by Nike. (www.tourprogolfclubs.com)

Rory McIlroy grew up wearing Nike and following Tiger Woods. Today, he and Tiger are two of over 8000 athletes sponsored by Nike. (www.tourprogolfclubs.com)

Of course, no one will care about the stories your brand can tell unless you have a product or service to match. “Nothing else really matters if the product isn’t right,” said Hansen. “If it’s not a world-class product, it doesn’t matter how great the stories are that we’re telling.” What makes your product or service matter? Why is it valuable? Do consumers trust your product to do its job? Brand managers need to communicate with consumers to learn the answers to these questions. As you conduct market research and interact with consumers through social media, you will begin to hear more compelling stories from your consumers. This research can then be used to strengthen and improve your brand and your product.

A branded culture

These two elements together—storytelling and quality products or services—can lead to more than just a dialogue. Nike hopes that its dialogue with customers takes them to a new level of interaction. “We want to go from a great product company to a great service company that makes great products,” said Hansen. Great brands aren’t just companies. They’re a lifestyle. Successful brand managers take the culture surrounding their brand and extend it into consumers’ everyday lives. “Phil (Knight) didn’t want to sell you something. He wanted to help you be something,” said Wieden. A brand that can help its consumers be something and elevate their values and attitudes will be a brand that can become a culture unto itself.

 

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