Ask any of the millions of sneaker fans worldwide how Nike became so popular and you’re going to get a seemingly endless amount of responses.
The history of Nike is well documented. The timeline begins in 1964 when Phil Knight and Bill Bowerman founded the company, which was then named Blue Ribbon Sports. In 1971, the company would become Nike Inc. and the iconic Swoosh logo was born. As the years passed, Nike introduced a bevy of innovative sneakers to the marketplace, attracted the biggest names in sports to endorse the brand and dominated the athletic footwear industry from its headquarters in Beaverton, Ore.
Decades later, the athletic powerhouse hasn’t slowed down one bit.
Although the reasons Nike has been so successful seem to have no end, there are some more obvious than others. Below are three of the many reasons that Nike became so popular.
Teaming Up With the Best Athletes and Celebrities
Nike’s toughest competitors have signed their share of standout sports stars throughout the years, but it’s hard to dispute that the most famous and decorated athletes have at one point or another donned the Swoosh logo.
This is most visible with its legendary roster of pro basketball stars. The greatest player of all time, Michael Jordan, laced up looks from the brand throughout his iconic career starting in 1984, and Nike would sign the greatest hoops stars from each generation that followed, including the late Los Angeles Lakers legend Kobe Bryant and three-time NNBA champion LeBron James.
On the diamond, Ken Griffey Jr. — often regarded as the greatest player in MLB history — wore Nike, and today’s best, Mike Trout of the Los Angeles Angels, has his own signature looks from the brand.
The legendary all-time athlete ambassador roster continues with tennis (Serena Williams, Rafael Nadal, Andre Agassi and many others), Tiger Woods in golf and Cristiano Ronaldo in soccer. The Swoosh also has ties with the greatest multisport athletes to ever play professionally in Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders.
Aside from athletes, Nike has aligned with some of the most influential celebrities, which has helped cement the brand with people who are more interested in style than sport. Rap megastar Travis Scott, for instance, has created collaborations with the Swoosh that sold out almost instantly, and Nike has seen similar success with musicians G-Dragon, Skepta, Kendrick Lamar and others.
Also, it’s important to remember that Kanye West delivered his first Yeezy sneakers with Nike, not his longtime Adidas home.
Compelling and Thoughtful Marketing
To say Nike is incredible with its marketing is an understatement.
Through thoughtful and compelling ads and campaigns, the brand has delivered messages that have stood the test of time — and it continues to do so. Its marketing is so memorable that both passive and diehard fans of Nike could rattle off several commercials for several of the brand’s ambassadors with relative ease.
“Nike has had partnerships with the top names in sports ranging from Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Cristiano Ronaldo, Serena Williams as well as top names in entertainment such as Drake and Travis Scott. Nike has done a great job using these celebrity endorsements to create iconic campaigns from ‘Is it the shoes?’ with MJ and Spike Lee or one of their most recent ‘Believe In Something’ campaign featuring athlete turner activist Colin Kaepernick,” sneaker influencer and photographer Henry Francois told FN.
One of the brand’s most impactful years as of late in terms of marketing was 2016 when Nike was named FN’s Marketer of the Year. The year featured several milestones such as Bryant’s retirement, James’ NBA championship with his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers and USA Basketball winning Olympic gold in Rio — and Nike made the most of them all.
However, the star-studded messaging took the back seat to its most captivating initiatives, which weren’t focused on the pros.
“Our greatest successes came when we were able to tell stories that represented both the elite competitor but also the everyday athlete,” Nike chief marketing officer Greg Hoffman told FN in November 2016. Enter “Unlimited,” its effort to encourage individuals of all abilities.
The most profound visual from the initiative was “Unlimited You,” a film directed by The Daniels and featuring well-known figures such as Kevin Durant, former ambassador Neymar Jr. But regular men, women and kids were the spot’s real stars.
Ryan O’Rourke, global creative director for Nike’s longtime advertising partner Wieden + Kennedy, explained that “Unlimited You” — narrated by actor Oscar Isaac — offered an atypical dynamic. “We normally don’t break the fourth wall and have athletes talk to narrators and have narrators respond,” O’Rourke told FN in November 2016. “The ad became alive. The narrator thinks he knows what these athletes should be doing, but they push beyond what he expects and he wants to restrain them. Usually in advertising, your narrator doesn’t tell everyone to give up.”
But Nike’s marketing achievements in 2016 went well beyond “Unlimited.” On April 13, 2016, “The Conductor” video debuted, delivering an unusual way to celebrate the end of an NBA legend’s 20-year career: with fans and players telling Bryant how much they hate him. “If you look throughout Kobe’s career, he was polarizing, but he had people’s respect because of what he put into the game every single game,” Hoffman said in November 2016. “‘The Conductor’ brought that to life in a playful way.”
Added O’Rourke, “Normally brands [don’t] embrace selling ‘love the hate’ with an athlete’s retirement. But Kobe is fun to work with because he’s so self aware and embraces that stuff.”
But 2016 wasn’t its only great year in marketing, and several of its best ads debuted years before. The “Banned” commercial for MJ’s Air Jordan 1, for example, is forever cemented in the minds of sneakerheads worldwide, and Nike has created some of its best commercials surrounding the highs and lows of Woods’s storied career.
The Continued Release of Timeless Sneakers
All of the athletic market leaders have an iconic silhouette in their catalog. Some have legendary looks in multiple categories. But saying Nike has the most classic sneakers across multiple categories is an easy argument to make.
Another somewhat easy argument to make is that Nike owns the most iconic sneaker of all time: the Air Force 1. The court-ready basketball shoe turned lifestyle look debuted in 1982 and is arguably more popular today than ever — most notably the all-white low.
“[The Nike Air Force 1 is] the Nike sneaker I’ve seen most in my life. As a young kid growing up in New York City that was the shoe — and it still is. In different cities, it may be a different sneaker, but where I’m from, white-on-white uptown’s are always in style — in the ’90s, the 2000s and even now in 2019,” social media personality and YouTube standout Mr. Foamer Simpson told FN in July 2019. “I think the longevity really matters, too. It’s one thing for a sneaker to be popular for a few months or even a few years, [but] it’s a whole other thing when a sneaker can be popular for 30 years. The Nike Air Force 1 did that. New York City forever.”
Nike also has the most timeless basketball shoe of all time, the Air Jordan 1, which remains a staple in almost every sneakerhead’s rotation today.
“Until the Nike Air Jordan, basketball shoes were primarily marketed to — and sought out by — basketball players. Air Jordan changed all that,” sneaker media veteran Russ Bengtson told FN in July 2019. “As much of a standout on store shelves as it was on NBA courts, the first Air Jordan became a universal status symbol like no other sneaker before it. Jordan wore it, yes, but so did LL Cool J and the coolest kid in your class. This was when sneakers went from ‘want’ to ‘need.'”
And one of the most beloved running shoe franchises is also owned by Nike: Air Max. The line debuted with the Air Max 1 in 1987, and while the Swoosh continues to deliver looks in the franchise with performance in mind, the most popular styles are retro classics made for casual wear.
“This shoe dropped in 1987 and introduced everyone to Air. Not only did this shoe shock the world with visible Air Max technology, it was also [introduced as] a red shoe, which was unheard of in those days. My first Air Max shoe was actually a pair of Air Max 90s, but when they retro’d the Air Max 1, I grabbed a pair and never looked back,” Sneaker Politics owner Derek Curry told FN in July 2019. “I have bought the original colorway every time it has been rereleased over the years — sometimes even grabbing two to three pairs of them. I also buy all the other colorways and collaborations when I see one I like, which is once a month. It’s the one shoe that has stood the test of time for me. The shoe is great with jeans or shorts. It’s a versatile silhouette that fits any situation. Long live the AM1.”
Although the aforementioned sneakers are once performance models that are now laced up with casual wear in mind, at one point they were top tier in their respective categories. And with Nike’s dedication to technology and solving the problems athletes face via innovation, sneaker fans should expect this cycle to repeat for years to come.
“They listen to athletes and design their shoes to meet endurance, durability and performance standards specifically,” Francois said. “The quality that Nike produces whether it’s clothing, sneakers or even accessories is consistently exceptional year in and year out.”