Nike store. Picture: REUTERS
Nike store. Picture: REUTERS

The complexities of building a business – and a brand – from scratch are well documented in the brilliantly written Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of Nike by Phil Knight. Considered one of the most successful brands of our times, Nike – ironically – was not built on branding or advertising. Knight, an accountant by training, openly admits that he wasn’t a proponent of branding or advertising. Instead the business was founded on a relentless focus on sales.

Shoe Dog is a memoir of what it takes to build a company and the personal sacrifice, uncertainty, precarious financial footing, external threats and big decisions that had to be taken in the years before Nike achieved financial security.

When Knight launched Blue Ribbon – the precursor to Nike – in 1965, running certainly wasn’t the craze it was to become. It wasn’t even a sport, says Knight, it just “was”. “Running for pleasure, running for exercise, running for endorphins, running to live better and longer – these things were unheard of,” he writes in Shoe Dog. Knight, however, believed passionately in running, which is why, despite being useless at selling encyclopaedias, he was very good at selling running shoes.

But as Tim Metz, marketing director of KaiOS Technologies writes on his blog, catching and pushing a cultural wave is easier said than done. “In hindsight, everything makes sense. But spotting a true trend before it’s happening and then betting your everything on it, that’s hard and takes real guts.”

Despite the fact that we live in a very different world to the 1960s when Blue Ribbon was launched, Nike remains an excellent example of a company where market demand and a strong emphasis on sales preceded everything else, says Metz. “They didn’t spend years in a laboratory building a product nobody wanted,” he writes, adding that strong market demand and a relentless focus on sales came first, laying the foundation for one of the greatest brands of all time.

The big take-out

Nike was founded on a relentless focus on sales and a culture that fought against conformity, says founder Phil Knight in his memoir Shoe Dog.

A great brand, maintains Metz, stands for something. “It expresses a passionate reason for the existence of the company that connects with a belief on the side of the consumer. At its best, the brand (through its products) allows the consumer to express that belief to the world, while simultaneously solving a real problem or need.”

Nike gets this right. Knight’s belief in his product is unwavering. He was brilliant at selling running shoes for the simple reason that he believed in running and didn’t see selling running shoes as selling. “I believed that if people got out and ran a few miles every day, the world would be a better place, and I believed these shoes were better to run in. People, sensing my belief, wanted some part of the belief for themselves,” writes Knight in Shoe Dog.

Nike wanted to create and to contribute, writes Knight, and it dared to do so aloud. “When you make something, when you improve something, when you deliver something, when you add some new thing or service to the lives of strangers, making them happier, or healthier, or safer, or better, and when you do it all crisply and efficiently, smartly, the way everything should be done but so seldom is – you’re participating more fully in the whole grand human drama.”

Though Knight would probably be the last person to call himself a marketer, he had a deep understanding of what the company was trying to create. “We were trying to create a brand, I said, but also a culture. We were fighting against conformity, against boringness, against drudgery. More than a product, we were trying to sell an idea – a spirit,” he writes in Shoe Dog.

That’s not to say the company always got it right: Knight admits the company has made huge errors, including misjudging the aerobics craze and an ill-fated move into casual shoes.  It was only in the mid-1980s that the company learned the value of a marketing orientation and to put the consumer at the centre of everything it does.

Tim Metz’s full blog can be accessed here.