Why almost everyone misunderstands Brands.

Part One

I’ve been leading brand research and strategy projects for some of the largest (and smallest) brands in the US for a number of years. Somewhere along the way I realized how little anyone understood what a brand actually is.

I’m not talking about stupid people here. These were some of the most brilliant minds I’ve ever encountered. But when it comes to understanding the idea of a brand, they were clueless.

So with this series I’m going to try to explain what a “brand” is in simple, easy to understand language that everyone can get. Starting with the famous picture.

Lesson One: This is not a pipe.

This happens to all of us every day: you see a logo and suddenly – I’m talking subconsciously and instantaneously – all your lifelong experiences associated with that brand are smashed together into an instant emotional response: “I love that brand” or “I hate that brand” and all points in between.

But a logo is not a brand.

“This is not a pipe.” The Belgian surrealist artist René Magritte illustrated the concept of “perception always intercedes between reality and ourselves” in a number of paintings – including this, his most famous work, entitled The Treachery of Images

In 1928, René Magritte created “The Treachery of Images” or “This is not a pipe” and instantly threw the art world into an uproar and caused lifelong friends to turn their backs on him.

“Of course it’s a pipe!” everyone exclaimed.

“How people reproached me for it!” René would bemoan later. “And yet, could you stuff my pipe? No!! It’s just a representation, is it not?”

René’s point was that the image of his pipe instantly triggered a mental process of incredibly rapid sorting and filtering in our minds through a complex range of lifelong experiences, memories, emotions and impressions good and bad of what pipes mean to us that we then projected onto his painting saying “this is a pipe”.

But it is not a pipe. It’s a two dimensional painting – and not a very good one at that.

The NIKE Legend: A Logo is Not a Brand

I had a client recently who enthusiastically asked us to do a “ really cool, game-changing logo like the Nike “swoosh”. Epic. He went on to explain how the Nike swoosh had single-handedly created the multi-billion dollar sports shoe business.

And he wanted a logo that would to that for his company.

I had to explain to him that Phil Night, the founder of Nike, hated – and I mean despised – the “swoosh” and the Nike font the first time he saw them. A young artist did if for him for $35 bucks when he first started Nike and was bootstrapping the company and had no money.

He had wanted something “powerful” that would represent Nike, the winged Greek Goddess of Victory. What was this horizontal paisley thing and sans serif font?

But as fortune would have it Phil was out of time – so he used the swoosh and Nike type on his first pair of sneakers promising himself to change it to a good logo as soon as possible.

The rest is history.

It was everything – and I mean everything – Nike did after that fateful night when Phil Night settled for a logo he hated which created the real emotion behind the way we feel when we see the Nike font and Swoosh the young female designer (Carolyn Davidson) had created for him.

If a brand isn’t a logo, what is it?

Number two in a series.

In the first section of this post, I tried to explained what makes the Nike “Swoosh” so well-known that most of you actually know what I’m talking about when I type the word “Swoosh” together with the word Nike.

It is not that the Nike typeface is so awesome or that the “Swoosh” mark itself is such a great thing, because they aren’t. At it’s very best the “Swoosh” is a rounded off check mark and the Nike typeface is nothing more than a good example of a kerned-out sans serif type.


But they are more than that together. So much more.

So what ARE the things that makes the Nike and the “Swoosh” mean so much? They are the countless other things that Phil Knight and his Nike brand acolytes have done to make those two graphic symbols the most recognized name and brand in sports – and arguably the world.

Yes, the Adidas “Three-Leafed Plant” logo is also very well known (especially in countries that play Fūtbol), as is the Puma “Puma” – especially in the pan-pacific countries.

There is really only one Nike.

Let’s admit it, Adidas and Puma are cool, but there’s really nothing else like Nike. I mean, there’s Coke and Apple and a couple of others.

But we’re talking about Nike here.

Everything Nike does with their products and brand is calculated to generate a positive perception by regular schmos like you and me. To convince us that their products are not only desirable, but also a great value at only $239.95 per pair of running shoes.

How does THAT happen? Is it because we know that we can wear the exact same shoe or t-shirt that the very best athletes in the world wear when they compete to be the very best in the world? Is that why we pay Nike the $239.95 for a pair of running shoes?

Or is it because of the way we think wearing those Nike shoes will affect the way other people who see us think about who WE are?

Or is it somewhere in-between – or not related to any of that shite at all?

The answer, of course, is yes to all of these statements.

How can one brand mean so many things at once?

How does this happen? How does Nike have this place in our collective consciousness and our lives?

It’s because Nike as a company understands – and understood at the very beginning – their values. And then they adhered to those values which are expressed in the form of the following “Nike Mission Statement” from the Nike Corporate Website:

“To bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete* in the world”.
*If you have a body, you are an athlete.

Yes, the NIKE Mission Statement has an asterisk. God help us all.

Tragically, Phil Knight’s co-founder, Bill Bowerman (He from whom we have not heard a peep in ‘lo these many years perhaps because of his pedantic need for an asterisk), felt the overwhelming need – and demanded Phil do it – to insert that useless asterisk which almost spoiled the purity of Phil Knight’s mission statement/vision.

Ask Yourself a Few Questions (I’ll answer for you):

  • Have you ever been inspired by Nike? Yep.
  • Have you ever seen Nike innovate in some way? Yep.
  • Have you seen that more than once? Yep.
  • (Their wicking fabrics are incredible – their shoes have become so light – everything they do seems to get better every single year). Have you noticed this? Yep.
  • Have you seen famous athletes who compete at the highest-level wear Nike gear? Yep.
  • Doesn’t that inspire you? Yep.

However, I have to confess that it does NOT inspire me to think “I have a body therefore I am an athlete”. Sorry Mr. Bowerman.

Yes, Nike has celebrated “everyday” hero’s who apparently have little more than a body and a willingness to improve (certainly these people do not have highly performing body machines like most NBA stars and Olympic athletes have). That’s what “Just Do It” was about – kinda.

“Just Do It” was about non-athletes, kinda.

But what if Nike had gone too far with the asterisk? It could have happened!

What if Weiden+Kennedy (Nike’s ad agency) had ignored Michael Jordan and not signed him in favor of making an some anonymous athlete with a fat body like, say, Mike Jones from Akron, Ohio – who can really mow the heck-fire out of his lawn? And made a shoe called Mike Jones Grass?

What would “Just Do It” have meant then? Without Michael Jordan? Without Jordan Air?

I’ll bet not a reflective day goes by in Phil Knight’s life that he does not HATE that asterisk – because it’s not only pointless. It’s a distraction. It’s an impurity.

It’s unnecessary for the success of the Nike brand. And, in my mind, it always has been. In fact, I believe it could have killed the Nike brand except for Phil Knights’ willingness to ignore that asterisk.

Nike was never in danger of becoming too focused on those few humans blessed with unnatural athletic prowess as the sole Nike target customer. There are simply not enough shoes to be sold at that rarefied level. No – Nike knew that by serving the outrageously talented and heroic athletes that ruled their games that the Mike Joneses of the world would want to wear shoes just like those super guys and gals did. And not to mow their lawn. Maybe to golf in, but not mow the lawn. That’s for Adidas.

I digress, I know.

But inconsistency bothers me. Even in greatness.

The truth is that it has taken a lot of discipline and consistency to become the Nike you and I know, love, over-pay for and feel good about doing it. That much is obvious.

What may not be obvious to many of us are the millions upon millions of decisions both tiny and enormous along the way that have not only kept Nike at the top – but pushed the brand ever higher in such a way as to redefine what the Top itself means while at the same time creating a whole new order of Top so that other brands that aren’t apparel in nature still have to compete at a much higher level to achieve “Top-ness”.

The Audience Question of the Day:

So here’s my audience question of the day: Do you think you have what it takes to be a Phil Knight? Or do you think all the good ideas are already taken?

Of course you can be a Phil Knight!!

He’s not the only one ever. Believe me. According to his former partner, if you even have a body you can do this today with your brand! Ha!

Yes you can! Would you like to know how? Then you’re in very good luck, my friend.

Because in my next article in this series I will take you behind the scenes of another great brand and show you how they leveraged the simplicity of a great mission into the ownership an entire category – embodying a world of complex feelings, ideas, behaviors and attitudes.

“Becoming the next great brand”.
Episode Three of our on-going “What Makes a Brand a Brand?” Blog.

HEY! Do You Want to Be in the Know When the Very Next Episode of “What Makes a Brand” is published?
(Most people*do!)
*If you have a body, you are a person (Thank you Bill Bowerman for that)

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