How Nike turned its brand into a $35 billion cognitive ‘shortcut’

A brand shouldn’t be an esoteric idea. It’s a tangible asset that may be value billions of {dollars}. So, what precisely is a brand? Is it a image? A narrative? An financial mannequin?

In a world with greater than 500,000 manufacturers competing for consideration, the place people are uncovered to five,000 brand messages per day, the place the human mind consumes 11 million bits of knowledge each second, a brand is a shortcut that helps individuals course of and perceive the that means behind logos. That cognitive shortcut is a enterprise’s most essential asset. It may be value billions of {dollars}. How these manufacturers are valued has gone via revolutionary change lately.

The story of Nike, a brand now value $35 billion, highlights the distinction between the outdated manner of branding, and the way it has modified. It reveals that manufacturers are now not constructed primarily based on how they’re portrayed. Now, manufacturers are constructed primarily based on how they behave.

Early on, Nike was not a flashy brand. It created a useful product that was used solely by knowledgeable runners. Then in 1987, Nike invited the advert company Wieden+Kennedy to pitch it on a new marketing campaign. The night time earlier than the massive pitch, Dan Wieden got here up with Nike’s legendary tagline. He grabbed a stiff drink and turned on his TV to calm down. On the information was the execution of Gary Gilmore, who had been convicted of killing two individuals in Utah. Gilmore’s final phrases earlier than dealing with the firing squad had been “Let’s Do It.” The road broke via the stress and ignited one thing in Dan’s thoughts. He shifted a couple of phrases and selected an Eleventh-hour pivot to “Simply Do It.”


Since then, Nike has turned Simply Do It into a multibillion-dollar asset. However that street has not been with out its rocks. Actually, Nike nearly misplaced all of it in a second that highlights how transparency has modified the sport from the outdated image-based world of branding to the brand new world of behavior-based branding.

In 1997, Nike commissioned a confidential investigation by Ernst & Younger that discovered atrocious circumstances within the abroad factories that equipped its sneakers. The report was leaked to The New York Instances after which made headlines in all places. Nike didn’t personal the factories. The corporate outsourced all of its manufacturing to distributors world wide. However shoppers didn’t care and held the brand accountable. As a end result, the corporate’s inventory value tanked, and Nike misplaced 50% of its market cap just about in a single day.

Nike’s merchandise are simply rubber, fabric, and stitching. The Swoosh, “Simply Do It” slogan, and famous person endorsements create cognitive shortcuts to the corporate’s values and its promise of integrity and high quality. Out of the blue, these shortcuts had been telling a completely different story. Who needs to be related to a brand that hurts girls and kids?

However right here’s the a part of this story that I really like: Nike modified. The corporate fully overhauled its provide chain. In 2005, Nike embraced transparency and launched a international database of greater than 700 factories. This wasn’t required by legislation; it was a proactive step that signaled a dramatic shift from the brand’s beforehand opaque provide chain. Nike determined to take a management place in moral outsourcing within the business.

Quickly, Timberland, Puma, Adidas, and Reebok adopted the brand’s lead, in the end shining a gentle on their provide chains and the remedy of their international workforce. Environmental influence statements quickly adopted. Nike’s brand and monetary worth recovered after which grew exponentially, proving which you could’t use PR or promoting to get previous a brand disaster—you even have to vary your conduct.

Nike additionally proved that profitable branding within the age of transparency isn’t merely about sturdy moral conduct; it’s about advertising with a perspective. In 2018, the brand ran adverts supporting Colin Kaepernick, the San Francisco 49ers quarterback who was the primary skilled sports activities participant to protest racism by taking a knee through the nationwide anthem earlier than video games—and consequently discovered himself with out a job, shut out of the league. These adverts, which featured the stirring tagline “Imagine in one thing, even when it means sacrificing every thing” stirred up as a lot controversy as Kaepernick himself.

Nike misplaced about $3.5 billion in market cap within the quick backlash from its Kaepernick endorsement. Media pundits declared that the brand would undergo extreme long-term harm. However its core viewers—youthful, extra numerous, extra progressive—rapidly rewarded Nike for demonstrating bravery and supporting racial equality. Inside weeks, Nike’s inventory had greater than rebounded. The danger paid off as a result of manufacturers don’t must please everybody. They have to be true to their values and core viewers.


[Cover Image: courtesy McGraw Hill]Shoppers at the moment see proper via makes an attempt at obfuscation, duplicity, and superficial messaging. Manufacturers should discover the nexus of what they stand for and what their audiences actually care about. Nike’s market cap is now twice as excessive as when the Kaepernick advert got here out and 7 occasions greater than when the brand began to wash up its provide chain. Brand conduct and advertising with a perspective break via the enemy of incrementalism and drive exponential outcomes.

Excerpted from Exponential: Transform Your Brand by Empowering Instead of Interrupting by Jeff Rosenblum (McGraw Hill, January 2022), pp. 87-90.