In 2019, something spectacular happened at a Sotheby’s auction. The world held its breath as Miles Nadal claimed the rare and renowned 1972 ‘Moon Shoes’ specially handcrafted by Bill Bowerman, Nike’s co-founder, for an outrageous $437,500.
Since Nike’s Moon Shoes are the most expensive sneakers ever sold, it’s no longer an exaggeration to say that the company is the greatest shoe brand of all time.
The Moon Shoe
Today, Nike controls an estimated market share of 50%, has held the title of world’s most valuable apparel brand several times, and with the introduction of Nike’s self-lacing shoe, it seems the brand’s value will take another leap.
But the story—like we saw in Phil’s book, Shoe Dog—would have taken a different tone if Phil Knight and Bill Bowerman, Nike’s founders, had taken a different path during the naming of their company.
What path you ask? Well, it all began in…
The Early Days
A young Phil Knight, while studying in the University of Oregon, was a member of the sports team coached by Bill Bowerman. But Bill wasn’t just any ordinary coach, he had an intense fascination with optimizing his running shoes, and Phil was the first student to try Bill’s modded shoes.
Fun fact: Otis Davis won the 1960 Summer Olympics 400 meter dash with the very first shoe Bill customized for Phil Knight.
After Oregon, Phil attended a Stanford MBA program, where he theorized that Japan would overtake Germany in the production of running shoes. And just like that, the idea of venturing into the shoe industry began taking shape in Phil’s mind.
In Search of Passion
At the end of his stay in Stanford, Phil travelled the world in search of opportunity, inspiration, and passion. He visited several countries including Hong Kong, Vietnam, India, Egypt, Jerusalem, Rome, and Greece.
Nike adjusting her sandal
Courtesy: Khan Academy
During his stay in Greece, the budding entrepreneur visited the temple of Athena, where he saw a piece of art that left a permanent print on his memory, the statue of the goddess of victory, Nike, adjusting her shoes.
The Birth of Blue Ribbon Sports
In 1964, after his quest for inspiration and passion, Phil took his first major step into the shoe industry and attempted to strike a deal with the executives of Onitsuka to become the sole distributor of the Japanese shoe brand, Tiger, in the US. When asked—during the meeting—what company he was with, Phil quickly recalled the blue ribbons from track events and replied, “Blue Ribbon Sports of Portland, Oregon”.
Phil’s presentation didn’t just convince Onitsuka of the immense rewards Tiger stood to gain from entering the American market and undercutting Adidas—the leading brand—it was also the birthplace of the brand, Blue Ribbon Sports.
Phil and Bill began selling Tiger shoes from the trunks of their cars, and sure enough, sales grew and the union between Blue Ribbon Sports and Tiger blossomed into a match made in heaven.
A New Brand is born
But sadly, nothing lasts forever. The relationship between both companies became strained after Tiger discovered Blue Ribbon Sports had re-designed and sold their version of the Tiger Cortez under a new line.
Both companies formally split in 1971. And Phil, knowing his company needed to manufacture and distribute its own shoes, decided he needed a new brand name and logo that fits this growth.
Phil met a shoe factory in Guadalajara, and placed an order for 3,000 soccer shoes. He also enlisted the help of a young graphic artist, Carolyn Davidson, famously known for creating Nike’s iconic swoosh logo.
But even though Phil had gotten a logo, and had also prepared a magazine ad to coincide with the release of the first shoe samples that were already set to hit the market in Japan, he still lacked one thing, a brand name.
And to get the best name, Phil assembled his employees to brainstorm a strong name for the company. Days went by and the team generated tons of generic names and a few unique ones like Falcon, and Dimension Six, yet they couldn’t decide which name was best.
Thankfully Jeff Johnson, an employee managing the company’s East Coast factory in Exeter, New Hampshire, after reading an in-flight magazine about great brand names had gone to bed that night only to see the name of the Greek goddess of victory, Nike, in a dream. Johnson quickly called Bob Woodell that morning to inform him about the name.
Initially, Phil wasn’t excited about Nike, but he later conceded, stating that:
“A lot of things were rolling around in my head, consciously, unconsciously. First, Johnson had pointed out that seemingly all iconic brands — Clorox, Kleenex, Xerox — have short names. Two syllables or less. And they always have a strong sound in the name, a letter like “K” or “X,” that sticks in the mind. That all made sense. And that all described Nike.
Also, I liked that Nike was the goddess of victory. What’s more important, I thought, than victory?” – from Shoe Dog by Phil Knight
The first Nike shoe—an instant hit—entered the market on the 18th of June, 1971, and since then Nike’s sales and market share have continued to rise to the top. But Nike doesn’t just owe its success to its amazing products, clever marketing campaign, and celebrity endorsement, but to its cool logo, catchy tagline and most of all, its unique brand name.
Grant Polachek is the Director of Marketing at Squadhelp–transforming the way names are developed by combining an affordable agency-level brainstorming process with the unmatched creativity of “the crowd.”