My unsuccessful launch of the Nike brand


A reflection on the whimsical, greatly unscientific factors that drive the ascension of great brands.

Amy Winehouse

This photo of the late Amy Winehouse in a Nike sports bra illustrates the ironic ubiquity of the brand I invented.

In the 21st century, 14-year-old kids know that before naming anything you need to get online to find out if the URL is available and the brand unregistered for the desired use.  It only takes 10 minutes.  In 1966, teenagers did not think that way and businesses needed lawyers, specialists and weeks of research to properly create an entity.

Back then, my junior high school friends and I thought a brand was something Rowdy Yates stuck on a cow, but we did have a branding problem.  Our aim was to superficially impress females, but our performance was sub-par in penetrating the critical 13 1/2 – 15 1/2 age demographic.  Preliminary research showed that top performers belonged to clubs, known today as gangs.  Membership in a club significantly increased a member’s credibility and influence within the target market.  Because, any established club would have rejected at least one if not all of our group, we decided to form our own on a Saturday morning.

The night before, I was proactive.  I learned the meaning of that word later, slightly before I differentiated branding from cattle.  The name had to project force, superiority, winning and greatness.  Names of the clubs we had to compete with were Counts, Bucks, Gentry and Athenians. Studying my dictionary and encyclopedia, I figured that the perfect name would allude to a mythological deity, but even the tough guys and dumb chicks had heard of Apollo, Mars, Thor, Zeus, Mercury and the like.

As I recall, the name jumped off the page. Nike was the Greek goddess of victory.  It sounded cool and I had never heard of it.  Proud of myself, I was.  When we got together the next day, no one else had heard of Nike either and our club became Nikes (rhymes with bikes).  We quickly elected a president, invented a secret handshake, headed to the mall to the mall for the official launch of the Nike brand.

Testing a representative sample

Within minutes, we identified a target market sample.  Of the four girls in the group, only two wore braces, and one filled a C-cup.  The six of us approached, ready to test our unique value proposition.

“Hey, how you doin?”  our spokesperson began.  “What are your names?”

After introductions and a small amount of banter, our leader took advantage of the first opportunity to ask:  “Do you go out with guys in clubs?”

“My boyfriend’s in Counts,” C-cup answered, referring to a club known for drinking and fighting.

“Well we’re in Nikes.  We don’t have anything against Counts,” he said.

“Who cares,” she answered.

The next couple of hours was more of the same. Yes, we had a great name, but no money, cars or signature rings.  We couldn’t beat up anybody and did not have any turf to defend.  By the end of the day, we had split off and cared as much or less about Nike than the girls we met.  It became the first great missed opportunity of my life.

What vision and maturity can do

In 1966, Philip Knight was a wholesaler for Tiger athletic shoes.  In 1971, he was making plans to launch his own line of shoes and his friend Jeff Johnson, who — just like me — knew about the Greek goddess, suggested her name to the entrepreneur.  According to official sources, Knight was far less enthusiastic about the name than I was five years earlier.  “I don’t love it, but it will grow on me,”  he has been quoted as saying.  He then hired Carolyn Davidson, a graphic design student at Portland State University to create the now ubiquitous logo for $35.

But, if only I had thought about money.  Had I been a mercenary on that fateful Saturday, I would have told my friends:

“Listen, to make this thing work, we’ve gotta really look like we’re all in this together.  So, I went out and got sneakers for all of us.  I painted the name Nikes on them. Now, everybody has to take us seriously. I worked all night on these. All you have to do is pay me an extra $5 for your brand new Nikes sneakers.”

“That’s queer,” they would have said.  “No on wants to have writing or pictures or anything on their sneakers.”

But, I would have convinced them, sold the sneakers, and established prior usage of the Nike name in the sports apparel category.  Such is life.

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Elyse October 17, 2009, 10:13 am

So I am picturing in my head you and some of your other buddies at Dadeland Mall being as unsuccessful with women as ever. A very clear picture. You are just lucky someone didn’t beat you up.