Friday, May 15, 2009

Nike a Leader in Marketing of Sports Products

By: Michael Corbin
Spring 2009

The purpose of this blog is to analyze the effect that Nike Corporation has had and continues to have on the marketing of sports products. The contemporary era of sports can be characterized as one undergoing an intensified process of cultural, social, political and technological changes. The emergence of Nike Corporation has mirrored the sky-rocketing popularity of sports, athletes and personal athletic activities and achievements in the late twentieth and early twenty first centuries. Nike has fueled a great deal of this popularity by employing famous and well known “athlete-celebrities” (Schultz, 2009) to endorse Nike products through mass media in the form of television and radio as well as through “popular magazines and newspapers” (Schultz, 2009). Additionally, by becoming a bonafide cultural icon, the Nike “swoosh”, as the corporate symbol, has become one of the most well-recognized product emblems in contemporary society, trailing perhaps only the Coca-Cola and McDonald’s trademarks in name recognition.

Nike’s marketing techniques have been and continue to be aimed at selling both an image, through symbolic form, and a product, through endorsements. Nike CEO, Phil Knight, acknowledges that the “rise of consumer culture” (Schultz, 2009) and advertising have driven the athletic footwear industry. In the “mass-media driven culture of consumption” (Schultz, 2009), the meanings produced by cultural and social messages, through the projection of symbols and images attached to certain products, is what drives consumption (Katz, 1994). Nike has pushed the commercialization of sport to new heights through its “Nike culture” (Goldman & Papson, 1998). Nike clearly recognizes and plays upon consumer values by displaying its symbols and slogans, which provide consumers with a certain status and sense of identity (Katz, 1994).

The real value of the Nike shoe is the “swoosh” that is present on the side of each shoe. The “swoosh” is a symbol that has come to stand for athletic excellence and achievement and a spirit of determination (Goldman & Papson, 1998). It has become a form of social and cultural currency that draws its value from factors such as shoe style and celebrity-athlete endorsements, including those by Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, Roger Federer and Serena Williams. No corporation has put as much creative energy and resources into the marketing of celebrity-athletes as Nike (Goldman & Papson, 1998). For example, by placing the “swoosh” in the same advertising frame as Michael Jordan, Nike has been able to draw upon the value and meaning of Michael Jordan as a star basketball player. The meaning of “Air Jordan” is equivalent to the meaning of “Air Nike” (Goldman & Papson, 1998). The “swoosh” is so popular that visitors to remote and impoverished regions of the world report finding people there sewing imitations of the “swoosh” onto their shirts and caps (Goldman & Papson, 1998). Through its symbol, Nike’s principle business activity is now the design, development and marketing of high quality footwear and apparel.

In this newly emerging era of global production, sports advertising, through a system of symbols and icons, has made the “rise of consumer culture” (Schultz, 2009) through sports a central component of our economy. According to Phil Knight, sports is the central, unifying culture of the United States and “the stuff of romance and dreams. Sports is like rock n roll,” Knight says. “Both are dominant cultural forces, both speak an international language, and both are all about emotions” (Willigan, 1992).

Through their endorsement of Nike products, “athlete-celebrities” (Schultz, 2009), quite often become corporate assets. In this sense, they represent the Nike Corporation itself and its business practices. One such practice involves outsourcing the actual production of its shoes. In so doing, Nike depends upon the existence of poor Asian nations where there is a surplus of workers in need of work and wages. In this regard, Nike has become the focus of media scrutiny because of questions about the treatment of these poor workers (Egan, 1998). The critics of Nike’s human rights point to Nike’s exploitation of this sweatshop labor, which can be compared to and contrasted with the human rights’ violations that are commonplace in China today. Nike has relentlessly dismissed allegations against it for its use of unfair and unjust labor practices, despite strong evidence to the contrary (Egan, 1998). This issue is of important political significance and has played a role in the impression that people have of the Nike sports giant.

Today, the proliferation of Nike’s “swoosh” symbol and the promotion of its maxim “Just do it” has helped to propel Nike into a big money business, with a current profit margin over 9% and a projected growth of $23 billion by 2011 (Goldman & Papson, 1998). Nike has leveraged the power of the “swoosh” by making it the centerpiece of its Niketown “chain stores” (Schultz, 2009), the most visible and grandiose of which opened in Manhattan in 1996 (Goldman & Papson, 1998). Nike’s “Just do it” motivational slogan provides people with the belief that if they are willing to put forth the effort, without regard to any physical or social limitations, they can perform at their very best in personal athletic activities. Nike has thus found a way to harness society’s worship of “athlete-celebrities” (Schultz, 2009) and obsession with status symbols into one of America’s greatest commercial success stories of the late twentieth and early twenty first centuries.

Nike technology can only be found in genuine Nike shoes. Nike has made the consuming public aware of this fact through its advertising and marketing techniques and through the endorsement of its technology by “athlete-celebrities” (Schultz, 2009). As a result, Nike has become the leader in innovative shoe technologies. It borrowed the air cushion technology used in its running shoes to mass produce air cushioned basketball shoes through the use of “assembly line technology” (Schultz, 2009). Since basketball shoes are all about performance, this technology easily fits under the Nike umbrella. Michael Jordan, perhaps the most famous celebrity-athlete ever, wore the shoes despite being threatened with fines by the NBA, and sales took off. Since then, Nike has created many new categories of athletic shoes under the Nike brand, from cross-training and water sports to outdoor and walking shoes.

Nike’s role in sports history has thus been exemplified by its well recognized and popular “swoosh” symbol and its “Just do it” logo, as well as through successful endorsements by “athlete-celebrities” (Schultz, 2009). As a result of these strategies, Nike has been able to rely upon the “rise of consumer culture” (Schultz, 2009) to sell its products and be the leading athletic shoe and apparel company in the world today.


Egan, T. (1998, April). The swoon of the swoosh. New York Times Magazine, 66-70.
Goldman, R. & Papson, S. (1998). Suddenly the swoosh is everywhere. In Nike Culture, pp.1- 23. London:Sage.
Katz, D. (1994). Just Do It: The Nike Spirit in the Corporate World. MA: Adams Median Corporation.
Schultz, J. (2009, Spring). KNES 293: The History of Sport in America, Module IV, Topic 7, pp. 157-158. University of Maryland, College Park, MD.
Willigan, G. E. (1992, July/August). High Performance Marketing: An Interview With Nike’s Phil Knight. Harvard Business Review, 91-101.


Egan, T. (1998, April). The swoon of the swoosh. New York Times Magazine, 66-70.
Krentzman, J. (1997). The Force Behind the Nike Empire. Stanford Magazine, 1-9. Retrieved April 17, 2009, from
Willigan, G. E. (1992, July/August). High Performance Marketing: An Interview With Nike’s Phil Knight. Harvard Business Review, 91-101


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