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.

Bowerman was a gruff, cold-eyed descendant of the Oregon trail pioneers. He came back from World War II with two silver and four bronze stars. He had loved bringing up the new guys in the war, and his knack for teaching led him to take a job as the running coach at the University of Oregon.

His runners looked at him with an almost godlike fear. They loved and respected him, and they were more than willing to act as his guinea pigs for his shoe experiments. After years of obsessively tearing apart and customizing his runner’s shoes, he joined forces with one of his old student runners, Phil Knight, and co-founded Nike: the sports powerhouse that joined the Fortune 100 in 2016. By his death in 1999, he had transformed the way America exercised — both their mindset and their attire.

Hundreds have attempted to dissect the story of Nike and extract the secrets of its success to replicate in their own businesses; yet few, if any, have focused on the right things. We fixate on their business model and strategic decisions: Nike was fearless about investing in growth; they had an obsession with quality shoes; they had a great marketing strategy. We think that if we just imitate their business plan, we can achieve that same level of ubiquity.

But Nike’s success didn’t happen because they sponsored so many athletes. Their power comes from something any business can replicate, but that few look closely enough to see.

Nike’s key to success? A visionary founder, his risky belief system, and the symbol that multiplied exponentially.

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:

“Victory is in having done your best. If you’ve done your best, you’ve won.”
Bill Bowerman.

This belief might seem trite to some today, but imagine telling that to a World War II vet in 1950 and you’ll see what I mean. Let’s contrast that quote with a couple of Bowerman’s contemporaries, shall we?

Douglas Macarthur, General of the Pacific Army: “In war there is no substitute for victory.” I don’t know if Macarthur and Bowerman would have gotten along.

Well, that’s war, you might say, but sport is different. In that case, I give you Gabe Paul, general manager of the Yankees: “There is no such thing as second place. Either you’re first or you’re nothing.”

Bowerman’s great obsession was not, contrary to popular belief, making better running shoes. His obsession was first and foremost to convince the world to hold a different definition of victory. 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.

Bowerman’s greatest runner and mentee, Steve Prefontaine, said it this way: “A lot of people run a race to see who is the fastest. I run to see who has the most guts.” Bowerman’s relentless commitment to this belief made him maverick in many ways — but it also won him undying loyalty from all his runners. He didn’t let anyone rest on their laurels; he didn’t believe laurels were all that proved a person was a good athlete. Bowerman called greatness out of his runners, and they loved him for it.

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.

These are the psyche-hacking practices of world-changing leaders:

  1. Tribes espouse a distinct and transcendent central belief system, which they codify in a manifesto and take risks to live out, even when it’s difficult.
  2. Tribes tell a compelling myth that embodies that belief system.
  3. Tribes use symbols to create a connection with the myth (and, thus, the manifesto).
  4. Tribes create meaningful rituals to tie the belief system to people’s daily routines.

Any visionary who employs each of these powerful methods of communication to express a singular, risky philosophy will gather a following that will move heaven and earth for their sake — and, really, for the good of the world.

Bowerman used symbolism and mythology as vehicles to deliver his ideas, and by doing so created a bond of loyalty with everyone he coached or worked with. You can see this genius still at work today in the way that Nike employs symbolism to initiate outsiders into Bowerman’s particular worldview.

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?

We see in the Nike swoosh a clear container of Bowerman’s philosophy and mythology, and that is why it is so deeply effective. Think of the symbol itself for a moment.

  • It is a visual representation of rising action, ad infinitum, thus stating Bowerman’s belief that action in itself is a victory; winning has nothing to do with success.
  • 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.

The company name invokes the Greek goddess of victory, who famously gave athletes laurel crowns and fame. Also, the greek god Hermes is always depicted with wings on his heels as an archetypal image of speed. Bowerman and his co-founder were using the brand to tap into the Olympic mythos. When combined with the symbol of the swoosh and the tagline “Just Do It,” Nike founders were making a bold statement that still moves us:

You don’t have to win gold at the Olympics to be victorious. You’re victorious every time you push yourself to break a limit or do the impossible. Victory goes to those who take action. You can attain victory.

You can see the way this symbol affected the American imagination in The Sandlot Part 2, when the protagonist opens a new pair of Nikes before leaping into danger. 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. No longer is running just for runners; no longer is athletic wear for professional athletes only.

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.

By offering the world a symbol of the Nike tribe to wear on their shoes (and shirts, and socks, and shorts, and hats), Bowerman gave them a shared ownership in his story, making the tribe’s beliefs and mythos tangible and relevant to their day-to-day life.

As a coach, Bill Bowerman could have had a deep impact on one or two individuals at a time. But as a business leader, his reach multiplied across the world. He and his fellow leaders used the symbol of the swoosh to introduce the world to their unique beliefs, and even now, Nike continues to wave Bowerman’s banner two decades after his death.

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.

We’ve put together resources for people who want to lead families, businesses, communities, and themselves.

There’s the 7-day Tribal Transformation for leaders who want to change their culture from the inside out. Each day of the course will walk you through every step of tribe-building, with case studies that show you exactly how to go from personal belief to team transformation. Just like Nike, you’ll learn how to harness the power of symbols to communicate transcendent ideas and offer belonging with your own team, in their day-to-day life.

We have our proven Core Beliefs Session to help individuals or teams get in touch with the purpose that fuels them, just like Bill Bowerman did as he defined his beliefs. In just 2 days you’ll emerge with a Manifesto of values that can guide a transition, establish a family culture, or define a brand.

You can also take our Leadership Archetype Assessment to find out where in the leader’s journey you are — and where you need to go next.

This and more is available at A Tribe of Me.

A creative agency building tribes and moving mountains for brands with a mission. Drop us a line at sherwoodfellows.co