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Where did the NIKE brand name really come from?

October 17, 2016 Jono Black

In his fascinating memoir, ‘Shoe Dog’, Phil Knight describes where the NIKE brand name came from.  But is there more to the story than meets the eye and were other factors in play? Factors that even Knight and his colleagues weren’t, and perhaps still aren’t, aware of?

Here’s what we know already:

The business started trading as Blue Ribbon Sports, distributing Japanese running shoes in the US.  Having decided to develop their own range of shoes, the book describes how a manufacturing deadline had put the pressure on the team to finally arrive at a definitive brand name for their own products.  Knight, along with two of his original employees, Jeff Johnson and Bob Woodell, were agonising between Knight’s favoured option, ‘Dimension Six’ and the other frontrunner, ‘Falcon’.

At the final moment, Johnson threw in another option - NIKE.  He described how the answer had come to him in a vision in the middle of the night.

Knight was not immediately enamoured with the name.  However, Johnson had pointed out that many iconic brands (e.g. Kleenex, Xerox), have two syllables or less and are dominated by strong sounding letters like ‘K’ or ‘X’.  Knight had visited the Temple of Nike during his travels as a young man and had liked the fact that Nike was the goddess of victory.

There was no Eureka moment.  The best they could say was, “maybe it’ll grow on us”.  And ‘grow on them’, and all of us, it did.

Having worked for many years in the advertising industry, and having recently started my own shoe company, I can relate to the difficulty of coming up with a brand name. You end up playing around with an infinite combination of different words and letters.  Sometimes an idea can appear to come at you from nowhere but, in reality, any flashes of inspiration are probably a result of all the thinking and process that you’ve already applied to the problem.

This is where the Nike example gets interesting.

A year before they landed on the brand name Nike, Knight and his colleagues had attempted to raise some money from the new breed of venture capital firms that were springing up around the nascent technology sector in Northern California.  To attract their interest, they came up with a tech-sounding holding company name for Blue Ribbon: Sports-Tek Inc

Although Knight berates himself for the failure of this fundraising, it possibly played a crucial role in the genesis of one of the most valuable brands ever.  

When the ‘savant-like’ Johnson went to bed the night before that crucial deadline, perhaps his subconscious was still searching for a better brand name than ‘Dimension Six’ or ‘Falcon’.  Did the aborted holding company name, Sports-Tek Inc, drift into his subconscious?  If it did, the ‘answer’ was right there in front of him.  Contained within that name Sports-Tek Inc, albeit written backwards, was the word ‘nike’.