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Lesson #1: Become a Remorseless Marketing Machine

“Our job is to wake up the consumers” says Knight. “If we become predictable, that’s not waking them up.”

In creating the Nike empire, Knight not only rewrote the rules when it came to sports shoes, he also rewrote the marketing book. Knight understood that he wasn’t just in the sports business, he was in the sports marketing business, and he redefined what it meant to be so. Although he has never personally written an ad or directed a television commercial, Knight has cast a wide shadow over the marketing world, and Nike has been all the better for it.

The Nike ‘swoosh’ logo might be one of the most recognized in the world, but the Nike marketing machine extends far beyond its logo. For more than 20 years, Knight has worked closely with the ad agency Wieden & Kennedy to produce some of the most memorable campaigns in marketing history. In 1988, the team came up with the “Just Do It” slogan, which has today become an icon of pop culture. Nike made similar history when Knight signed a young basketball player by the name of Michael Jordan to endorse his shoes. In little time, Jordan was recast as Air Jordan and was one of the world’s most famous product endorsers. A Nike Super Bowl spot featuring Jordan and Bugs Bunny even became the 1996 feature film Space Jam.

Knight has carved out a unique reputation in the marketing world by producing ad messages that seemed to honestly come from the athletes themselves. In 1996, Knight became a figure of controversy with his “Search and Destroy” line of ads that featured Olympic athletes with defiant slogans such as “I didn’t come here to trade pins” and “You don’t win silver, you lose gold.” Almost overnight, Nike had become a symbol for bad sportsmanship. Knight, however, believed the ads were an honest reflection of the competitive nature of athletes. He refused to back down in the face of criticism, and sat back to watch the popularity of his ads grow.

Since then, Knight has used his ads to sound off on social issues he feels are important in the world of sports. In 1994, Charles Barkley declared, “I’m not a role model,” in one Nike ad. In another, golf player Tiger Woods criticized those golf courses that refused him play because of his skin colour. In yet another, young girls addressed the issue of Title IX by saying, “If You Let Me Play,” in a series of 1995 Nike ads.

Knight knows he might be offending some with his ads, but he says it is necessary in order to compete with those companies that are bigger and have more time and money to spend on marketing. “Good campaigns define who you are,” says Knight. “We have to get consumers’ attention. We don’t have six months to check with focus groups.”

In 2003, Knight won Advertiser of the Year at the 50th Cannes Lions advertising festival week. When he first started out in the business, he readily admits that he hated advertising. Now, he can’t get enough of it. What was it that changed his mind? “It worked,” says Knight.

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