The genius of Phil Knight

I’m a little late to this, as we’re all caught up in the US women’s World Cup victory, Fourth of July weekend and, for a the minor few, Donald Trump’s descent into madness.

But I wanted to say a few words about Phil Knight.

Phil Knight, as most of you know, has been the driving force of the Nike brand ever since he joined up with legendary University of Oregon track coach Bill Bowerman to develop a shoe that took advantage of the jogging craze in the early ‘70s.

He's up there with Steve Jobs and Walt Disney as brand geniuses.
He’s up there with Steve Jobs and Walt Disney as brand geniuses.

Last week, Knight announced he’s stepping down as chairman of the board at Nike, although many reports say the 77-year-old will still wield influence.

He should. Once Nike got really going in the early ‘80s, it turned the sneaker industry upside down. Until then, shoe brands focused solely on the shoe. They simply marketed what aspects of the shoe manufacturers thought would be appeal to consumers, such as arch support and other product benefits.

It was Knight who understood that product features were not the reasons why people choose. They choose for emotional reasons, then backfill those choices based on rational reasons to affirm their choices.

It’s the same understanding that innovators such as Steve Jobs and Walt Disney knew. To actually have a brand that’s coveted, it must tap into the highest emotional intensity in the market.

Jobs knew coveting technology was for those who “think different.” Disney knew that his brand would only become powerful if it was about magic.

What Phil Knight did.

At the time when Knight starting powering Nike through our consciousness, Nike was floundering. Converse, if you can believe it, was the best-selling sneaker. In just a few years, Knight turned Nike into the overwhelming market leader while Converse went into a nosedive and irrelevancy. (Only for Knight and Nike to buy Converse later, turning it into a fashion brand.)

The “Just Do It” campaign tapped into the idea of being a winner, without all the fuss. Just run. Just work out. Just exercise. Just achieve. Just win.

Knight connected the Nike brand to the world’s greatest winners such as Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods. Nike had such a strong bench of winners that even when Tiger’s allure faded, the brand still represented winning.

The lesson of Phil Knight and Nike is still apropos in today’s marketing world. So many brands still think they can out-feature the competition to win. You see it with fast food brands that are currently flummoxed why their new menu items aren’t increasing market share.

Even some of the largest brands in automotive, banking and car insurance have no idea of how to make a “Just Do It” connection to their audiences so they will be coveted. They just talk about the car, bank services and insurance prices.

Nike never talks about the shoe.

So, while the rise of Nike began decades ago, the lesson taught by Knight is as important as ever to marketers today.

Adidas and Reebok: Oh, where have you gone?

The sneaker/workout apparel market turned upside down when Nike became the first to stop talking about benefits of its shoe and sported, “Just Do It.”

Since then, competitors have tried and tried to bite into Nike’s market share with little success. Converse, once the market leader, fell out of existence until Nike, of all companies, bought it and sold it as a fashion item.

The two competitors trying to claim more prominence ever since have been Adidas and Reebok, joining forces in 2006 when Adidas bought Reebok to create something of a juggernaut.

Or so it hoped. Nike still holds the market lead and Under Armor has usurped Adidas in the workout apparel market.

It is in this situation that Adidas is attempting to change course in two ways: 1) Use more US athletes to market Adidas shoes and 2) feature a free-range chicken for Reebok.

I’m not joking.

Adidas announced a new shoe marketed by Portland Trailblazer Damian Lillard as its North American President said: “I know we’re a soccer brand globally, but in the US we have to be about US sport. We can still be No. 1 in soccer, but that can’t be what drives our business.”

So Adidas signed up 250 NFL players and 250 MLB players, increasing their number of sponsored players dramatically. By itself, it’s not a bad idea as having athletes as spokespeople is a table stake in this category. (Nike was out front first with this strategy.) I just wish Adidas looked for something different so it would represent an actual choice emotionally.

Under Armor has athletes too, but its brand is built on a specific male power, often over exaggerated but not that far (in emotional terms) as what Hardee’s does with hamburgers.

If what Adidas is doing is simply equaling the field, its sub-brand of Reebok is using the Just Do It approach within the comedy stylings of a chicken.

At least Reebok isn’t talking directly about its shoes, and I’m always up for something different. But Live Free Range is overly clever, which as I noted on Monday rarely works.

Is this what Reebok claims is the highest emotional intensity in the category? Or is it (or, most likely, its ad agency) just trying to create some advertising noise to be noticed?

Well, it’s not the former, and probably more of the latter.

It still seems only Under Armor has learned the lessons of Nike over these many years. Adidas and its sub-brand, Reebok, are still running loose like a chicken with its head cut off.

Converse finally sues copy cats

Converse finally realizes the design is also part of the brand.

Wow, finally.

The old-fashioned Chuck Taylor All Stars seem to be everywhere. I see them all the time on both kids and adults. In fact, the girl I sat next to on a flight yesterday had them on. At least I thought she did. As I let her out to deplane, I noticed that her shoes lacked the “All Stars” badge on the back of the heel.

Are these the real Chuck Taylors or not?
Are these the real Chuck Taylors or not?

I have seen them in Old Navy, H&M and even in Ralph Lauren, but they are not Chuck Taylors at all. They are store brand knock-offs and they’ve been around for quite some time. They are nearly identical in design and, being made of canvas, they are cheap to manufacture.

But why did it take so long for Converse to say, “Stop”? This is a good question and one that may ultimately doom their lawsuit. I wonder if the powers that be at Converse (or Nike, which owns Converse) thought that they didn’t have to protect the design because they weren’t the Chuck Taylor brand? What I guess Converse failed to realize earlier is that, in fashion, brand and design are one of the same.

Brands need to be protected and fought for as their value comes from their uniqueness. Otherwise, they become nothing more than a commodity. And Chuck Taylor’s may be just that.