The Extraordinary History of Nike

Nike is a world leader in sports wear today, but its founders originally started out selling Japanese shoes.

Nike is one of the largest and best-known shoes, sports equipment, and clothing brands in the world. It is estimated that they enjoy somewhere in the region of 60% market share and have become, rightfully, a pop culture icon.

But their name, and logo, were almost aborted at a very early stage. Thankfully for the business, and it's millions of consumers around the world today, the company's founders decided to 'take a punt' with them.

Here we explore some of the major moments in Nike's history and explore where it got its name and logo. 

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Who invented Nike shoes?

Nike, or as they were known at the time of founding Blue Ribbon Sports, was the brainchild of Bill Bowerman and his former student Phil Knight. Bowerman was, at the time, a track-and-field coach for the University of Oregon. 

The company that would become Nike was created in 1964 and they would open their first retail outlet in 1966. The company initially served as the U.S. distributor for running shoes made by the Japanese company Onitsuka Tiger (aka Asics). 

After a few successful years, Knight and Bowerman decided to develop and manufacture their own shoes. To this end, the now-famous Nike brand shoe hit the shelves in 1971.

In 1978, the company officially changed its name to Nike and later went public in 1980. By the turn of the Millenium, Nike had grown to be one of the world's most valuable brands. 

The company's name, Nike, is derived from the Greek Goddess of Victory. If you are more familiar with the Roman Pantheon, Victōria (where we derive the word victory in English) is its equivalent.

Today it has retail outlets and distributors in more than 170 countries. Its logo, the now widely recognized curved checkmark or "swoosh", it one of the most famous in the world. 

Where was Nike started?

Nike, more specifically Blue Ribbon Sports (BRS) was founded and initially operated in Eugene, Oregon. It was, originally set up to be the official U.S. distributor for Japanese running shoes, and would sell around 1,300 pairs of shoes in its first year.

history of nike shoe
Source: Eduardo Francisco Vazquez Murillo/Flickr

With no official sales premises, the founding members were forced to sell their shoes out of the trunks of their cars. 

They could continue to see excellent sales of shoes, and by 1965 they had enough revenue to hire their first full-time employee. Nike's (BRS's) first retail store was opened on Pico Boulevard in Santa Monica, California in 1966. 

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In the late-1960s sales had continued to grow, and they further expanded operations into the East Coast of America in Wellesley, Massachusetts. 

The rest of the 20th Century would see exponential growth and expansion of the company all around the world.

Today the company is headquartered in Beaverton, Oregon. The Nike brand also includes other famous shoe-brands like Converse, Hurley, and Jordan. 

Why is Nike called Nike?

As we have already seen, the name Nike is derived from the Ancient Greek Goddess of Victory. But why was the name chosen?

Originally co-founder Knight wanted to name their brand "Dimension Six". 

“Knight went for Dimension Six; we thought perhaps for his love of the pop group The 5th Dimension,” said Geoff Hollister, the company’s third employee who managed one of their first stores.

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Various other suggestions were bounced around by other early employees, including Jeff Johnson, BRS's first-ever employee. In a famous recollection of the meeting, Hollister believed they should take a leaf out of Puma's book.

“I stayed in the zone of Puma,” referring to the successful German shoe company named after a cougar, suggesting the name “Peregrine,” a type of falcon.

Perhaps also inspired by Puma, another early BRS employee suggested “Bengal.” But none of these ideas were popular amongst the current staff.

According to Business Insider, "Johnson, who ran the company’s East Coast factory in Exeter, NH, would come up with another idea." Runners World contributor Matt McCue documented how Johnson read an in-flight magazine about great brand names, such as Kleenex and Xerox.

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history of Nike goddess
Stone carving of Nike in Ephesus, Turkey. Source: Carole Raddato/Flickr

"They had no more than two syllables and at least one exotic letter or sound in them with a Z, X or K," writes McCue, paraphrasing Johnson.

At 7 a.m. the next morning, Johnson awoke with the name 'Nike.' But it was only 4 a.m. in Portland, so Johnson waited three hours before calling Woodell.

'I’ve got it!' Johnson said to Woodell [another early employee], according to Strasser and Becklund.

'What?'

'Nike!'

'What?' Woodell asked. 'What’s a Nike?'

'It’s the Greek winged goddess of victory,' Johnson said."

But despite reaching a sort of consensus amongst existing staff members, Knight was not too enamored with the name. 

“I guess we’ll go with the Nike thing for a while...  I don’t like any of them, but I guess that’s the best of the bunch.”, Knight told his staff before eventually signing off on the new brand name.

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The rest, as they say, is history.

Who designed the Nike Logo?

The now world-famous Nike logo was designed by a Portland State University graphic design student, Carolyn Davidson. She sketched out a few ideas, but one of the ones she decided to show Nike's founders was the now-iconic "Swoosh". 

Despite its destined fame, Knight was not too impressed with it the time. "Well, I don't love it," he said of the design. "But maybe it will grow on me."

For her efforts, she was paid $35 and also worked for Nike for a few years until they needed a full ad agency.

"Twelve years later, in 1983, Ms. Davidson received a gold Swoosh ring with an embedded diamond at a luncheon honoring her, along with a certificate and an undisclosed amount of Nike stock, in recognition of the Swoosh design logo." - kicksonfire.com.

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What was Nike's first shoe?

According to Sotheby's one of the first, if not the first, Nike shoe was the so-called 1972 "Moon Shoes". 

This very rare pair of early Nikes were designed and manufactured for athletes at the 1972 Olympic Trials in Munich. According to The Vintage News, only 12 pairs were ever made and the pair sold at an auction was never actually worn.

The shoes were hand-made by Nike's co-founder Bowerwamn who, famously, used his wife's Belgian waffle iron as a mold for the rubber "waffle" soles of the shoes. 

This, he believed, would produce a new sole for athletic footwear that would have enough grip but, most importantly, be lightweight.

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