Like anyone, when I read a non-fiction book I’m looking for lessons. Stuff I can use, and of course stuff I can bring to you in this newsletter.
Naturally I want such lessons to be surprising and counter-intuitive, but even so I wasn’t quite prepared for this one:
Wanna create a legendary brand? Then leave it to the lawyers and accountants.
Surprising, yes, but exactly the headline that jumped out at me after reading Shoe Dog, the memoir of Nike creator Phil Knight.
I’m sure a lot of you have read it, and if you haven’t I strongly recommend you do. It’s a great book, not so much in an “actionable advice” kind of way, but more in a literary way. It’s probably the only autobiography I’ve ever read which would pass as a novel, such is the quality of the writing.
But despite the pleasure I had reading it, I was still hungry to draw insights from his story.
After all this is the guy who created what has to go down as the greatest brand ever. Better than Apple. Better than Coke. Better than Red Bull. It’s the case study to end all case studies, and yet, strangely, you don’t often hear it referenced in the marketing press. There aren’t many well-worn anecdotes about Phil Knight doing the rounds, the way there are with a Steve Jobs or Elon Musk.
And now I know why.
Because this titan among brands was created almost by accident, by a founder who wasn’t only an accountant by trade, but who scorned advertising, brand building, and all the soft n’ sexy stuff that we associate with a business like Nike.
When it comes to “heroic” stories about the creation of the brand, try these ones on for size:
• Nike wasn’t Knight’s main brand, but in fact a hastily thrown together side-project to protect the primary business (a shoe importer called Blue Ribbon) in case its main client ditched them.
• The famous swoosh logo was designed for $35, and chosen without the involvement of any “marketers”, simply because it seemed like the best of a bad bunch.
• The name Nike was picked grudgingly at the last minute because it came to one of the board in a dream. The other front runner? “Dimension Six”.
Also, although this doesn’t really mean anything, I still love this picture of the senior team who created the brand, primarily because I’m pretty sure they look nothing like most people would imagine (Knight is the blondie):
As one wit remarked on visiting their office “you mean to tell me that you’re an athletic company run by two fat guys and a guy in a wheelchair?”. (It was the 70s so a different time, but even so, a bit harsh).
Still, despite the story not being as one might expect, and despite Knight not mentioning the involvement of a marketer once in the entire book, Nike was no accident. There are some really interesting things to take from the story, of which I’d highlight these three.
I. The hard truth about transferrable skills
The main reason Nike was run entirely by lawyers and accountants is because, by his own admission, Knight didn’t really trust anyone else.
He reasoned that at least with a lawyer or accountant you have proof that the person is minimally competent, a good learner, and can process information quickly – whereas with a product person or a marketer or a sales guy, it’s a total roll of the dice.
Given therefore that he was constantly moving his senior team around the business – putting them in charge of sales one day, logistics the next, and a factory the next – he prioritised sheer “brain power” above anything else. Essentially anyone he met who he thought was uncommonly smart (his old boss from PWC, a lawyer who defended him in a case), he brought on board.
Now of course this isn’t to say that lawyers and accountants are necessarily smarter and more versatile than marketers and product people on an individual basis. But as a group, let’s be real, there’s some truth in that. Plus in terms of transferability it’s much easier for an accountant to “do sales” than it is for a salesman to “do accounts”, so in the hurly-burly atmosphere of a startup hiring for maximal resourcefulness makes sense.
Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it as a strategy…. but there’s something to it.
II. The era of supply vs. the era of demand
A massive caveat to the Nike story which makes it difficult to draw contemporary lessons from, is the fact that it was such a different time.
Knight’s entire saga, if you were to sum it up, is basically an ongoing battle to ensure supply. That was the challenge in the 60s and 70s. If you could supply a good quality athletic shoe, people would buy it. Simple as that. Therefore managing that difficult feat became the main preoccupation of the business.
Compare this to today, and it’s a totally different ballgame. In most industries supply is no longer the issue – demand is. Getting your product chosen above the rest. Hence the premium now being on market-oriented strategies rather than operationally oriented ones.
This fact of course plays in to the nature of Knight’s team: people who were used to solving “hard problems” rather than “soft problems”. By the time they had solved the hard problems, and grasped control of the market, they became the top brand effectively by default.
III. The irreplaceable power of truth
Away from all the dull technical stuff however there was one recognisable stroke of marketing brilliance: Nike was true. As true as any brand has ever been.
What do I mean by this?
I mean that it was a true reflection of the people who ran it. It was utterly authentic.
You see, far from “not fitting the brand” as we might instinctively believe, the Nike team actually fit the brand perfectly. They were all misfits. All outcasts. People who couldn’t make it elsewhere. People with a chip on their shoulder. Underdogs.
This of course is what Nike came to be all about – not as some vapid piece of “branding”, but as a truth which ran right through its core. The whole Nike brand is about “overcoming”. It’s about struggle against the odds. It’s about the pain of competing, not the glory of it. And this was a direct reflection of the pain and struggle faced by Knight in over 20 years of unglamorous, unsung, and unsuccessful grinding.
This business was not easy, not fast, and not fun to make. Which made it the perfect spiritual exemplar of the athletic process.
In circumstances where the rest of us would say “screw this”, Knight buckled down… and just did it.
Ultimately then I’m left to conclude that there isn’t a huge amount which is directly “copyable” in the Nike story.
And perhaps that’s always the way when it comes to the greatest of outliers.
As I’ve written before, the local pro at your tennis club has a hell of a lot more to teach you than Roger Federer does, because people like Federer, and brands like Nike, can only emerge from chaos. They can only emerge from the collision of freak events that can never be grasped, and never repeated.
Perhaps the only thing we can really take from Knight then is this:
To take action when others won’t.
I’ll leave you with what I think is the most significant anecdote of his whole history: his trip, aged just 24, to Japan, to ask the sneaker brand Onitsuka if he could import their shoes to the USA.
This was in the early 60s, when Japan may as well have been a different planet – not only that, but a planet that your people had nuked 15 years prior. Somehow Knight made it to the factory, made his pitch, made up a company name on the spot, and got a handful of shoes mailed back to his parents house in Oregon.
What happened after this is almost incidental, because let’s face it, who among us would have ever taken that first step?
I’m sorry to say I wouldn’t have.
And I guess neither would you.
So for now, let us keep our aspirations humble – aiming not to replicate Knight’s last step, but instead simply his first.