Nike’s Secret to Success: the Swoosh.

And how to harness your brand for that same force.

If you aren’t a competitive athlete but you’ve gone on a run anyway, you might have Bill Bowerman to thank. Before Bowerman, running was largely seen as an alternative sport for crazies. Only “runners” ran.

What makes a winner?

We wouldn’t think of Bowerman’s beliefs as strange today — but that’s because he succeeded in convincing us all that he was right. In his day, his beliefs were radically counter-cultural:

The victor isn’t the person who gets the trophy; it’s the person who is willing to push themselves past every limit and go all-out for their goal.

He could have just stopped there. After becoming one of the most successful running coaches to ever live, his impact on the sport of running could have been a meaningful but small blip, like so many other coaches who made an impression but weren’t able to multiply their ideas. Instead, Bowerman changed the entire American culture in the way he communicated his beliefs — through Nike and the Nike tribe.

Photo by Braden Collum on Unsplash

Building Nike with Tribal Methodology

We believe that every successful leader who changes the wider culture employs a set of practices that tap into the deep, tribal instincts of the human psyche. A leader who taps into and shares their beliefs can offer radical belonging and transcendent purpose to individuals, cultures, and society at large.

  1. Tribes tell a compelling myth that embodies that belief system.
  2. Tribes use symbols to create a connection with the myth (and, thus, the manifesto).
  3. Tribes create meaningful rituals to tie the belief system to people’s daily routines.

The Symbol

The Nike brand is not the most important sports brand in the world because Nike spent a lot of money on marketing. Nike tapped into the subconscious power of symbology, communicating myths and beliefs in an instant. When it communicates a clear belief, and when it is paired with a coherent mythology, a symbol has a life of its own. A symbol is a leader’s most subtle and powerful tool for offering others belonging. If a leader offers a follower a coherent symbol, that leader is saying, “I stand for this. Will you stand with me?” That follower has a simple way to “put on” the beliefs and thus to belong. They are instantly part of the tribe.

A symbol is a leader’s most subtle and powerful tool for offering others belonging.

We can see all of this at work in the Nike brand. The symbol of the swoosh delivers the “Bill Bowerman philosophy” and his love of Greek mytshology perfectly.

What’s in a Swoosh?

The Nike swoosh is simple — to the uninitiated, it looks like nothing more than a pen stroke. How can such a simple symbol have such a powerful effect?

  • It is a wing, which was an intentional homage to the goddess Nike, imbuing the swoosh a certain sacred significance.
  • It is a check mark, as you would see on a to do list. Again, action over perfection.

To purchase shoes with the swoosh is to agree with the philosophy, to enlist in a mythical legacy of other victors who have gone before you.

To wear the swoosh is to plant a flag, and to agree with Bowerman that victory isn’t a trophy — it’s a journey towards a better and stronger self, a journey available to everyone.

Why Symbols?

The symbolic method of communication is necessary for tribal leaders because beliefs are abstract and difficult to communicate, and though stories are better, they take place somewhere else — they are still distant and esoteric. Bill Bowerman could have written a company mission statement, but people wouldn’t have felt it emotionally. If he had just named the company Nike and come up with the slogan “Just Do it,” he would have had to do a lot of explaining to everyone he met. But a symbol is concrete and direct and instantaneous, and you don’t have to understand what it means to be affected by it. Symbols allow us to pour meaning into them and immediately connect even a casual customer to our deepest convictions.

A symbol is concrete and direct and instantaneous, and you don’t have to understand what it means to be affected by it.

Nike’s brand is a master class in generating loyalty through symbols. The linear way that their philosophy lines up with their mythology and their symbol makes them a perfect example for how these pieces come together to create a powerful subconscious sense of belonging with customers and stakeholders.

Start Using Symbols Now

While Nike is a massive and well-known brand, its model reveals practices that any company can start exercising to create immediate benefit. Nike’s symbols have potency because of a few simple yet intentional tribe-building steps. We want to give you everything you need to start taking those steps.

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