Nike was founded in 1964 as the Blue Ribbon Sports company just before I went to University and during my career it has grown to an annual turnover of over US$32 billion with profits not far off $4 billion. It has over 70,000 employees. Quite a success.

This success made the autobiography of the Nike founder Phil Knight, published last year, a must read as it covers the working years of many industry veterans, most of whom will have interfaced with Nike in some way or other over that period. The book essentially covers the early years and needs to be read alongside more detailed histories like Rob Strasser’s, Swoosh.

It is very well written and Knight frequently argues that he does not like the tools of marketing. He is a poor salesman, having failed with encyclopaedias, and he does not “get” the relevance of advertising. I view this as dangerous talk, damaging a sector of business which is both essential and very complex.

In reality the marketing he uses, largely picked up during his MBA at Stanford, when he wrote the paper he used as a blueprint to start the company, is advanced and in some ways pioneering. He was able to build a marketing strategy through developing a global situational analysis and he fully understood his product and his market. He was clear about pricing and his choice of Bill Bowerman as a founding partner gave him expertise, passion and industry endorsement at a stroke. Endorsement was a tool used extensively, aided by their natural access to athletes through their own involvement. With a focus on endorsement and sponsorships they did not start TV advertising until 1982, although their enduring “there is no finish line” print campaign started in the mid-seventies. 

What is more it is Phil Knight who realised he would need a logo to match the three stripes of Adidas and who grabbed a design student, Carolyn Davidson, just as he was ceasing his job as an accountancy teacher at Portland State University and asked her to do freelance work for Nike. She was the one who designed the logo which has been such a powerful global image. Like all sceptical CEOs Knight was uncertain: “Well, I don’t love it, but maybe it will grow on me.” Presenting creative concepts to senior executives is never easy.

Like many executives who decry marketing, Phil Knight was good at it, without realising that what he was doing was hard core marketing. He and Bowerman understood their customers, could identify their needs and could articulate subliminal needs in terms of an innovative product. They embraced innovation and even when new ideas were less than perfect their customers stayed with them since they felt they were honest about trying to offer better products.

In 2016, the leather industry recognised that its position as a major material for footwear was being threatened by alternatives of many types. As tanners, are we really looking at the industrial landscape, working to understand consumers and shoemakers needs, to be truly innovative and to offer great value for money? Marketing is not just a brochure or an advert; it is an entire way of doing business.

Mike Redwood

Follow Mike Redwood on twitter: @michaelredwood

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