Believe it or not, the Nike corporate empire started as a small distributing outfit located in Phil Knight’s car trunk. From these very humble beginnings, Knight’s brainchild grew and evolved to become the shoe and athletic firm that would come to define “coolness” and many aspects of popular culture.
Knight’s search for a way to make a living without having to give up his love of athletics and Bill Bowerman’s quest for lighter and durable racing shoes for his Oregon runners are the two main reasons why Nike was established. In 1959, Phil Knight ran the track for University of Oregon where Bowerman coached. The seed of the most influential sporting company grew between them. Knight’s marketing strategy was clearly influenced by Bowerman’s desire for better quality running shoes.
This is how the story goes: Knight took a class with Frank Shalenberger while pursuing his MBA at Stanford in the early 60s. Constructing a small business with a marketing plan was the semester-long project. Knight incorporated the growing opinion that high-quality/low cost products could be manufactured in Japan and shipped to the U.S. for distribution with Bowerman’s attention to quality running shoes. Through this, he has found his market niche. Shallenberger thought that the idea was no business jackpot, but definitely interesting. At that point, nothing came out of the project.
But in 1963, seeking a way to delay the inevitable call of professional life and filled with the wanderlust of young men, Phil knight went to Japan on a world tour. Out of nowhere, Knight set an appointment with Tiger – a Japanese running shoe manufacturer which is a subsidiary of Onitsuka Company. Knight told the businessmen of his interest in their product by presenting himself as the representative of an American distributor interested in selling Tiger shoes to American runners. Just moments after being asked who he represented, Knight came up with the name, Blue Ribbon Sports. From there, a company was born. The Japanese executives liked what they heard and Knight’s first order of Tiger shoes followed consequently.
Eight thousand dollars worth of Tigers has already been sold by 1964 and Knight placed an order for more. Coach Bowerman and Knight became partners and eventually ended up hiring a full time salesman named Jeff Johnson. In 1971, Knight and company devised the Nike name and trademark Swoosh after reaching $1 million in sales and riding the success wave.
Blue Ribbon Sports officially became Nike by the late ’70s, and went from $10 million to $270 million in sales. Nike’s success was through its placement within the matrix of the fitness revolution and was clearly described by Katz (1994): “the idea of exercise and game-playing ceased to be something the average American did for fun”. Americans have considered working out as a signifier of cultural status. Obviously, the circumstances surrounding this shift are not this simple. That’s why discovering other generators of popular attention to health is one of the purposes of this project.
If the fitness revolution was not started by Nike, Knight says, “We were at least right there. And we sure rode it for one hell of a ride” (Katz, 66). Nike grew even more during the 80s and 90s as the company began to assume market leadership and leave the old underdog status. In 1996, Nike was named Marketer of the Year by “Advertising Age”, citing the “ubiquitous swoosh… was more recognized and coveted by consumers than any other sports brand-arguably any brand” (Jensen, 12/96). Nike’s revenues reached a staggering $6.74 billion that same year. The company is projecting $8 billion sales in fiscal 1997, and has targeted $12 billion in sales by the year 2000. And it all started from the trunk of a car.