45 years ago a brand was born. A brand to change all brands – NIKE. Today Brian Grazer – Oscar and Emmy winning Producer and Best Selling Author tells The Story Behind the Brand. We hope you enjoy this fascinating look into the life and work of a brilliant brand developer – Phil Knight.
Rarely does true brilliance come along, but when it does, it changes the world. Such is the case with Phil Knight. I learned that he would be stepping down as Nike’s Chairman later this year, 45 years after launching one of the most iconic and beloved brands in the world, and I felt compelled to reflect on this visionary.
I’ve long been curious about how anybody could create a brand with such a high level of sustained coolness since inception. How did Phil Knight create a world that’s ahead of the culture in terms of its cool ethos – a task that is albeit impossible in this world of fleeting trends that live and die by the minute?
Having always admired the man behind the swoosh, I was grateful to run into Knight at the Allen and Co. conference in Sun Valley a few years ago. And wow, was I struck by how humble and unpretentious he was. Here’s a man whose brilliance revolutionized, sports, business and pop culture on a global scale – exuding a level of rare cool that very few brands can ever achieve, much less sustain decade after decade. So you’d would think, or at least not be surprised if he were a big ego type, but I found him to be just the opposite. Right away, I knew I wanted to have a “curiosity conversation” with him – to get a glimpse into his psyche and gain insight into his genius. By then, I had had “curiosity conversations” with hundreds of experts across different fields, but never the godfather of lifestyle brands.
To my delight, he agreed to talk and our first meeting was set for the Bel Air Hotel. I was so nervous with anticipation that I arrived over half an hour early. I waited and waited in the restaurant, growing more and more nervous as the time ticked by – past our agreed upon meeting time – and no Phil Knight. I was really bummed and figured he forgot or changed his mind. My dream of getting a peak inside the mind and heart of a guy who went from selling shoes out of the back of a Plymouth to building a brand with global dominance was starting to look pretty dim! Finally, I got up and walked around. Turns out, he was on time but sitting in the reception area! We found each other, both ordered their famous huevos rancheros and the conversation began…
He shared fun and interesting anecdotes about his life, but what came through most was his passion for his work coupled with a strong belief system. Knight was an athlete himself, so he understood the psyche and emotional heartbeat of what athletes need to feel confident, and when they do, how powerful and pivotal that confidence is to ultimate performance. He was about authenticity and “storytelling” before that word ever hit the modern marketers vocabulary, much less the buzzword it is now.
Our second meeting was at the Peninsula Beverly Hills (where by the way, we did find each other more easily). You want to know what cool is? It’s five decades of Phil Knight and the legacy that will live on. Why? How? He had a strong and clear vision early on, believing that the only way to win the game would be through an unwavering commitment to the athlete over all else. He believed in supporting them, investing in them (heavily) and giving them a platform via Nike’s billion dollar ad budgets to become superstars.
Knight was a non-conformist but never defiant just to be defiant, only in protection of this athletes and his belief system. That essence has been carried forward in every one of Nike’s campaigns. From “Just Do It” to “Bo Knows” to the most recent “Short A Guy,” for 50 years Nike’s campaigns have resonated due to their authenticity – an authenticity born from Knight’s individualism and pure belief in the greatness in athletes.
I would bet most people think Nike landing MJ was pure luck. Knight could never have known the level of greatness he would achieve, right? Of course not, but he knew the potential was there. He also knew something else – Jordan wanted to take NBA flight in adidas, not Nikes.
Knight saw this as a huge opportunity. An opportunity to transform the way brands “partner” with athletes. First, he offered MJ more than triple the highest current annual endorsement deal and also threw in stock options; a first for an athlete that had never even played a pro minute! Second, Knight made it clear that MJ could influence the design of his shoe – also a first.
When the dust finally settled, Jordan chose Nike over adidas and the Air Jordan launched in 1985. The shoe was a hit with everyone but NBA Commissioner, David Stern. Stern banned the shoe over the color scheme, but Jordan wore them anyway and Knight paid the $5K per game in fines every time. Not only that, Knight used the ban to strike a major street cred chord through a marketing campaign that gave Nike – and all those who wore the shoes – that bit of renegade edginess that hoops’ new generation was so powerfully drawn to.
Today, Nike sells a few billion in Air Jordans annually and both brands are arguably cooler now than ever before. Would that have been the case if Jordan had signed with another brand? No way. I believe that Knight’s visionary approach of committing to athlete over all else is what led to the success of the Nike and Jordan brands. Not only that, it let every athlete coming up know that if you play for Nike, you have a chance to create a global brand empire just like Mike. And remember, the whole world wants to be like Mike!
That commitment to athlete remains the foundation of Knight’s approach to this day. He supported McEnroe though all the racket tosses and umpire scoldings. He stood side-by-side with Tiger, and he continues to support athletes like LeBron, Rory, KD and Kobe as their legends unfold. He’s even made it his life’s work to elevate his alma mater’s athletic program, which resulted in Oregon becoming one of the most dominant schools across all sports year after year. All this because of one man’s unyielding love for the game and its players.
I will miss knowing a Knight is no longer at the helm of one of the most admired brands in the world, but there are hundreds of millions of fans just like me who will continue to celebrate his brilliance every time we lace up our favorite pair of Nikes. For years, I’ve wanted to tell Knight’s story in a documentary about the man, the sustainable ethos of cool he’s created and the magic of how it all happened. Perhaps the time is now to tell that story. So let’s get this started, tell me, what does Nike mean to you?