The genius of Phil Knight of NIKE

Tom Dougherty, CEO – Stealing Share

6 June 2015

The genius of Phil Knight of NIKE 

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.

Phil Knight 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, Phil 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.

“It was Knight who understood that product features were not the reasons why people choose. They choose for emotional reasons.”

What Phil Knight did.

At the time when Phil 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.


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