‘Just Do It’. It seems so obvious, simple and easy, but the truth is, a lot of time, energy, resources and money goes into creating a tagline so apt and perfect in the highly competitive world of branding. This successful slogan has stood the test of time, spanning decades without any need for revamping, despite an incredibly damaging backlash over sweatshop contentions in the 1990s. ‘Just Do It’ cleverly and simply represents an honest, no-nonsense, serious sporting attitude while evoking courage and bravery in a positive way. This inspirational, energising and authentic slogan had the power to turn Nike into arguably the most iconic sportswear brand in the world.

2020 Brand + Marketing Visionaries takes a look at the process and success of Nike’s stellar ‘Just Do It’ campaign…

The Rise of Nike’s Brand

In the late 1980s, marketers at Nike were faced with a nation of obesity and procrastination following a recession that had hit the US earlier that decade. The company’s customer-base was very thin, taking in the very specific and narrow market of competitive male athletes. The idea was to expand the brand to everyday people around the world, and the way to do it was to speak to baby boomer fitness enthusiasts – both men and women – through clever and effective brand communication. The ‘Just Do It’ campaign was launched in 1988, leading to Nike overtaking Reebok in sales and popularity the following year and continuing to grow in the years to come… until 1996.

Top Branding Lessons from Nike

The most successful brands have slogans or taglines that are memorable, meaningful and likeable. Besides a few very rare success stories that use one-word slogans, the general rule is that three words work the best, and Nike definitely hit the nail on the head with ‘Just Do It’.

  • Memorable Branding

Branding slogans, taglines and campaigns need to be memorable if they are going to have any chance at being successful. Nike’s ‘Just Do It’ has three important memorable traits that have allowed it to flourish over the decades – it stands out, it’s recognisable and it has staying power. It stands out because it poses as a challenge in an inspirational and energising way. It is recognisable because it goes to the core of Nike’s values and commercial purposes, and, in turn, it has staying power because it is authentic, recognisable and memorable.

  • Meaningful Branding

Nike’s no-nonsense challenging slogan appeals to its intended audience perfectly, giving it a clear link between the brand and the consumer. It is a serious sportswear company speaking to people who consider themselves as serious athletes or exercise enthusiasts, asserting energy and inspiration.

  • Likeable Branding

‘Just Do It’ looks good written down, it comes across as uplifting and energising, and it has always been likeable and relatable to its consumers.

Overcoming Brand Challenges

A damaging investigation into child labour published in Life magazine in 1996 looked set to destroy the Nike brand. Exposés had been printed earlier that decade but they hadn’t received the same public attention that this article did. The company was being shamed in public with sales dropping and its image becoming significantly tarnished. The brand’s success made it an easy target in the very serious issue of slave labour and outsourcing. Despite the fact that Nike was not the worst or only fashion or clothing company to use sweatshops, it became the one that everybody knew about. In 1996, Nike launched a taskforce charged with improving factory labourers’ lives, but the brand was not out of hot water yet. In the following years, any promotional efforts became opportunities for topical protests, and Michael Jordan, as a Nike spokesperson, was being challenged by sports journalists about the issue during nearly every interview.

Nike’s first attempt at redeeming its image failed dramatically. The company sent a diplomat and activist to examine its labour practices abroad, and, although his report was largely positive, the publicity created even greater backlash because of Nike’s involvement in the investigation. Towards the end of the decade, the damage had become so great that Nike had to lay off workers and it became apparent that serious changes needed to be made if the company had any chance of surviving. A shockingly truthful admission of wrongdoings in 1998 by then-CEO Phil Knight and subsequent pledge to raise the minimum age of workers, increase monitoring and adapt appropriate regulations in Nike’s overseas factories paved the way for a miraculous brand recovery. The company went on to create a non-profit association for independent code of conduct monitoring, and encouraged other brands to join its efforts. In 2005, Nike became the first sportswear brand to publish a complete list of its contracted factories, and the world tends to look at Nike now as having redeemed itself.

Having been the subject of such a major derailing as the sweatshop scandal, yet not having had to change its trading name or even its slogan, speaks volumes to the perfection of Nike’s branding genius.

2020 Brand Consultants