Nike shoes take their name from the Greek goddess of victory. It’s a fitting symbol for one of the world’s biggest seller of athletic shoes. The Nike “swoosh” is a symbol of athleticism all over the world. That image only grew when the company adopted its timeless slogan, “Just do it.”
How Nike Began
In 1964, Phil Knight was a student at the University of Oregon. He ran for the school’s track and field team, where he met coach Bill Bowerman. Bowerman credited his success as a coach to his ability to adapt his runners’ shoes. The mechanics of athletic shoes fascinated him, and Knight shared his interest. Bowerman asked a local shoemaker to teach him the details of shoe construction so he could design a totally new athletic shoe.
Knight was the first runner to try Bowerman’s invention, and he noticed an enormous improvement. Impressed, his teammate Otis Davis borrowed the shoes for his trip to the Olympics, where he won a gold medal in the 400-meter dash.
Bowerman and Knight went into business together as Blue Ribbon Sports. They opened their first shoe store in 1966. In 1972, they launched Nike shoes. The company went public in 1980 and has become global shoe giant.
Early Marketing Campaigns
Nike has a history of creative advertising that sometimes embraced controversy.
From its early days, Nike used advertising that expressed the joy of movement for its own sake. Most of their advertising featured elite athletes as Nike sought to capture high-level shoe buyers. These early ads showed Nike’s many celebrity endorsers with lines like “Find your greatness.”
In all its history, however, no slogan was as powerful as the three-word one the company has been using for almost 40 years: “Just do it.”
A New Direction
Although “Just do it” is a positive, encouraging message, its origins are rather grim. In 1988 Nike was in a deep sales slump. It was no longer the top-selling athletic shoe in the country. The company had laid off 20% of its workforce.
Nike executives realized the company’s marketing to elite athletes was leaving out ordinary people who were just trying to lose weight and get fit. In particular, Nike was losing sales to Reebok, who had geared its advertising to ordinary people who had embraced the aerobics craze. Fitness was becoming a big industry. Nike had to target this same large market if it wanted to survive.
The company decided an advertising shakeup was the answer. It hired the Wieden-Kennedy ad agency of Portland, Oregon, to come up with a new direction.
The Slogan’s Grim Origin
Dan Wieden came up with the tagline after hearing about the last words of convicted murderer Gary Gilmore. Gilmore was immortalized in the Norman Mailer book The Executioner’s Song, which became a 1982 TV movie starring Tommy Lee Jones.
In 1978, Gilmore was convicted of two murders. He became famous because he asked for the death penalty instead of life in prison. His sentence was death by firing squad. The novel and movie recounted that Gilmore’s last words before being shot were, “Let’s do it.”
Weiden had recently read the book, and the story stuck with him:
“For some reason I went: ‘Now, damn. How do you do that? How do you ask for an ultimate challenge that you are probably going to lose, but you call it in?’ So I thought, well, I didn’t like ‘Let’s do it’, so I just changed it to ‘Just do it’.”
The new campaign was a tremendous success. The first “Just do it” ad featured 80-year-old runner Walt Stack saying he runs 17 miles every morning.
Some ads still featured star athletes, but many simply urged everyday people to get fit by strapping on a pair of Nikes and moving. Within a few years, Nike had regained its position as the top-selling athletic shoe company in the country.
Like any well-known slogan, “Just do it” has been the subject of some court cases.
In 1992, Nike filed a lawsuit against Michael Stanard, who owned a company named Just Did It. The company sold athletic clothing that featured a swoosh logo, the name Mike and the slogan, “Just did it.” This seems like an obvious parody, and that’s what Stanard argued.
The US District Court was not amused, however, finding that Stanard’s infringement was deliberate and intended to create confusion. The court ordered Stanard to “be permanently enjoined from engaging in any activity which infringes on any of plaintiff’s trademarks or logos.”
They Couldn’t Believe It
In September 2020, Nike stopped a business that wanted to say, “Just believe it.” Business owner Jon Muntean tried to trademark the phrase for his consulting service. The service focuses on selling branded office supplies, apparel and home décor items for fundraising.
Muntean does not sell athletic apparel and was not a competitor to Nike. Despite this, the US Patent and Trademark Office’s Trademark Trial and Appeal Board found that using the slogan was an infringement on Nike’s trademark.
Smaller Shoe Companies
Nike has filed four lawsuits against Skechers USA, accusing its fellow sneakers maker of infringing on Nike’s trademarks, designs and utility patents. Nike has sued Puma and other manufacturers for the same thing. Puma and Skechers have both argued that they were using similar designs long before Nike registered patents for them.
Until now, most courts have sided with the smaller footwear makers. In a 2019 advertisement, Skechers took out paid advertisements in the New York Times and Los Angeles Times. The ads accused Nike of being a bully who would rather “use its vast resources to stifle competition in the courtroom rather than compete in the marketplace.”
The Leonard Lawsuit
In 2019, Nike was on the receiving end of a trademark lawsuit when basketball player Kawhi Leonard sued the company for stealing his personal logo.
When he became a professional basketball player in 2011, Leonard developed his own personal logo. During his endorsement deal with Nike, Leonard allowed the company to use his logo on specific merchandise.
Several years later, Leonard attempted to use the logo on non-Nike items and for charity events. He discovered Nike had registered the logo as theirs. According to the lawsuit, Nike registered the Kawhi Leonard logo without Leonard’s knowledge or consent. Leonard has asked Nike to stop using his logo, and Nike responded by asking Leonard to give up the rights to it.
In April 2020, a court ruled in Nike’s favor. Leonard is considering an appeal.
Read more on trademarking a logo.
Still Doing It
Like many corporations, Nike has been aggressive when protecting its trademarks. “Just don’t do it” is probably good advice for anyone who wants to mess with Nike’s slogans.