The Success of the Nike Brand, a History

Reader beware: I’ve been a fan of Nike for my entire life. Dang you, brand loyalty, and the fog that you put me in. Below are two photos of my most recent loves, my Air Force Ones. I’ll get to these later. This is an enormous post. Apologies.



Birth and Acceptance
So in 1972 Nike was born, as I understand it, out of Phil Knight and Coach Bill Bowerman’s desire to make good athletic shoes. Bowerman was a bit of a nut about running and running shoes, according to runners’ mythology, and his principle innovation was the lightweight running shoe with the now-famous waffle outsole. Yadda yadda yadda, they become the biggest sport brand in the world, thanks in no small part to Mr. Michael Jordan, his Airness and their ability to consistently market their innovations.

Oddly enough, their growth hasn’t ever really been about the technical superiority of their product, besides perhaps in the basketball category. In almost every sport, Nike isn’t the choice of the “serious” athletes. If you’re a serious basketballer or American footballer, it’s likely that you wear Swooshes. But serious runners typically choose something that is appropriate for their stride (New Balance, Saucony, Mizuno and Asics lead here, perhaps not in sales…). And most serious cyclists ride with Shimano, Sidi or Carnac. Serious backpackers and hikers stick with Asolo or some other specialty brand. Until recently (with the Joga effort and its ancestors) Nike played second fiddle for adidas in soccer. I’m not that familiar with baseball but I’ve seen a lot of logo diversity on the mound, suggesting that Nike’s hold here isn’t that strong. Nike rose to great heights with Agassi and stole Sampras away from Sergio Tacchini, but other specialty brands were still considered superior by many serious Tennis players. And in Golf, Footjoy and others lead (at least in perception of quality and appropriateness) Nike despite their ownership of the Greatest Of All Time, Tiger.

So Nike’s success, as far as I can tell, been founded on their ability to win over weekend warriors and to provide fashionable designs that can be worn outside of sporting activities. As I recollect from my middle-school and early high-school days, most every kid wore some sort of Nike (or Nike-inspired Payless knockoff) athletic shoe, typically of either basketball or running varietal.

Brown Shoe Movement
[Note: Not sure if I have my timing right here. Can anyone help?] But as the 1990s came to a close the so-called Brown Shoe Revolution started to threaten Nike’s hold on our collective feet. The rise of Doc Martens and their Bleatheren (get it? God that’s stupid) ilk introduced a new “look”…a new fashion possibility/sensibility that stole a significant share of foot from Nike. As trendsetters started to wear more “adult” footwear, the role for Nike (and other athletic footwear) became diminished. Nike wasn’t “about” the serious athlete and wasn’t fashionably relevant anymore. Big worries, I’m sure, in Beaverton.

A New Aesthetic
I remember in about 2002/3, my cousin Adam called from Italy and told me that everyone was wearing tight jeans tucked into wrestling boots. If you’re not familiar with wrestling boots, they are tall boots with a very spare midsole (the foam part) and a thin outsole. This helps wrestlers grip the mat; in this case, supportive foam is a detriment…you want as much “mat feel” as possible. About this time, Nike’s design really started to suffer. Their shoes became too technically garish, too over-the-top, too self-celebratory.


In the above graphic I’ve shown the style progression that occurred over the past 10 years that resulted in Nike’s current position. At top left is the Air Max 97. It arrived on the heels of the Air Max 95, which at one point (in the gray and green colorway) was selling for several thousand dollars a pair in Japan. This, I would say, was the height of the technically advanced, athletic Nike design aesthetic. It’s probably the most tasteful of the highly athletic genre. Note the thickness and prominence of the midsole (again, the foam part), and the weight/thickness of the upper (the fabric part), as compared to the middle shoe. In the middle is a typical wrestling boot. As mentioned above, note the lack of midsole and thin outsole and the high-top construction. These were very in for a while, and continue to be among particularly daring types. This spare, almost retro aesthetic led to the rise of the driving shoe (bottom right), which has a decent midsole for practicality but maintains the same general design idea as the wrestling boot. The shoe pictured here is the Puma Speed Cat. Certainly you’ve seen these on the feet of trendy types. It was this shoe style that helped to usher Puma and adidas to the front of the line for people looking to pair athletic shoes with their casual outfits.

So, to re-cap, the Brown Shoe Movement gave people the idea that hyper-athletic shoes didn’t really go with casual clothes. This, along with Nike’s push toward shoes that outwardly celebrated their technical advancement, with big air pockets and such, resulted in a movement to a spare, retro footwear aesthetic. Puma and adidas raced in to satisfy this need with their wide range of driving-oriented shoes that looked good but weren’t quite as outlandish as the trendy wrestling boots.

So that brings us up to the present. Recently, a trend started in the hip-hop community a few years back has resulted in a growing desire for retro sneaks with crazy colors. I’m not sure when this really started, but I’ll track some key events for you.


Jordans have always been popular, somehow since day one. And Nike produced some rare colorways of Jordans on a few occasions that grew to extreme popularity. One particular example was the Space Jam Air Jordan XI, pictured above. But in about 2002, factory variants started to become available on the internet (some real, some fake, many desirable no matter their provenance). For example, check out these Louis Vuitton Jordan XIs:


These are almost certainly fake. But it became very cool to have a unique, rare colorway of a popular shoe. And this trend is currently exploding. Nike’s doing a brilliant job with this trend, and it may help them achieve fashion relevance again. As far as I can tell, it started in hip-hop, with Nelly’s Air Force Ones:

Seriously, watch it.

It’s a tribute to Nike’s Air Force One shoe, originally made in 1982 and still worn in the NBA by Rasheed Wallace. The song is all about having rare, custom, or one-off Air Force Ones (like the ones pictured at the top of the post). But at about this time, there were some limited-edition (or painted-at-home) versions of the Ones showing up on the street, as evidenced by this lyric from the song:

Now if you looked, and seen lime green forces and kiwi
You couldn’t get this color if you had a personal genie…

I like the limited edition to khaki and army green
Patent leather pin stripe you should see how I do the strings
Size twelve with the strap
Red and white with a cardinal cap…

And once it crossed-over into the general public, it went crazy. For example, check out Sneakerplay, Freshness, NikeLab, Kicks Finder, and Nike SB. And in New York, they’ve got an invite-only Nike store where you can customize to your heart’s content.

In the end…
So Nike, through their moves with iD and by picking up on the customizability trend, has been able to win back some ground. And they’ve picked up some of their slack with the serious athletes. The Shox technology has been well-received by runners (and by Runner’s World, for what that’s worth), serious footballers are wearing Nikes, and the rise of LeBron James has been helpful.

Over at Adliterate, they were talking about Nike’s big brand idea. I’m not so sure what that is anymore. You used to be able to define it as Just Do It…but I’m not so sure that’s applicable. I think it’s more a collection of small ideas that work for specific niches. And that may be a big brand idea in itself.


7 Comments so far. Comments are closed.
  1. Well-recited chronology of the Nike brand. Sneakerheads would be proud.

    Did you hear about the Air-force 1 celebration party? Kanye, Nas, Rakim, KRS-1 performed. Check out the invite here, and pics of John Jay and Kanye aboard the private jet they commandeered to the event (the real Air force 1). All I can say is John Jay is my hero.

  2. Thanks, man. ‘preciate it.

    Naw, I haven’t heard of the party. Am checking out the invite now…


    Those Tiffany locks and the shoe trees! Wow…nice stuff. Wish I were invited. Unfortunately I’m not an international celebrity. Again, thanks.

  3. Lisa,

    Didn’t you hear? Nike has decided to stop manufacturing products! Read more about it here:

  4. I personally love retro anything including retro fashion. Thanks for the post.




  6. I wonder how much money Jordan has made from his shoe line? Probably in the billions!

  7. I think Nike’s are going to the retro look now for the more casual crowd. Their athletic line is ugly, but I like the retro looking ones.