Nike's ubiquitous symbol is the perfect icon for an imperfect postliterate world

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The early followers of Christ created a symbol to represent their beliefs and communicate with one another in times of persecution. The well-known Icthus, or "Christian fish," consisted of two curved lines that transected each other to form the abstract outline of fish and tail. The word for fish also happened to be a Greek acronym wherein:

  • Iota = Iesous = Jesus
  • Chi = Christos = Christ
  • Theta = Theos = God
  • Upsilon = Huios = Son
  • Sigma = Soter = Savior

Combining symbol and word, the fish provided believers with an integrated media package that could be easily explained and understood. When the threat of being fed to the lions forced Christians to be less explicit, they dropped the text. Without the acronym to define the symbol's significance, the fish could mean anything or nothing, an obvious advantage in a culture hostile to certain beliefs. But to Christians the textless symbol still signified silent rebellion against the ruling authorities. Within three centuries, the faith signified by the fish had transformed Rome into a Christian empire.

Today, in an electronically accelerated culture, a symbol can change the face of society in about one-sixteenth that time. Enter the Nike Swoosh, the most ubiquitous icon in the country, and one that many other corporations have sought to emulate. In a world where technology, entertainment, and design are converging, the story of the Swoosh is by far the most fascinating case study of a systematic, integrated, and insanely successful formula for icon-driven marketing.

The simple version of the story is that a young Oregon design student named Caroline Davidson got $35 in 1971 to create a logo for then-professor (now Nike CEO) Phil Knight's idea of importing and selling improved Japanese running shoes. Nike's innovative product line, combined with aggressive marketing and brand positioning, eventually created an unbreakable mental link between the Swoosh image and the company's name. As Nike put it, there was so much equity in the brand that they knew it wouldn't hurt to drop the word Nike and go with the Swoosh alone. Nike went to the textless format for U.S. advertising in March 1996 and expanded it globally later that year. While the Nike name and symbol appear together in ads today, the textless campaign set a new standard. In the modern global market, the truly successful icon must be able to stand by itself, evoking all the manufactured associations that form a corporation's public identity.

In the past, it would have been unthinkable to create an ad campaign stripped of the company's name. Given what was at stake—Nike's advertising budget totals more than $100 million per year—what made them think they could pull it off?

First, consider the strength of the Swoosh as an icon. The Swoosh is a simple shape that reproduces well at any size, in any color, and on almost any surface—three critical elements for a corporate logo that will be reproduced at sizes from a quarter of an inch to 500 feet. It most frequently appears in one of three arresting colors: black, red, or white. A textless icon, it nevertheless "reads" left to right, like most languages. Now consider the sound of the word Swoosh. According to various Nike ads, it's the last sound you hear before coming in second place, the sound of a basketball hitting nothing but net. It's also the onomatopoeic analogue of the icon's visual stroke. Reading it left to right, the symbol itself actually seems to say "swoosh" as you look at it.

However it may read, the Swoosh transcends language, making it the perfect corporate icon for the postliterate global village.

With the invention of the printing press, according to Italian semiotician Umberto Eco, the alphabet triumphed over the icon. But in an overstimulated electronic culture, the chief problem is what advertisers call "clutter" or "chatter"—too many words, too much redundancy, too many competing messages. Add the rise of illiteracy and an increasingly multicultural world and you have a real communications problem. A hyperlinked global economy requires a single global communications medium, and it's simply easier to teach everyone a few common symbols than to teach the majority of non-English speakers a new language.

The unfortunate result is that language is being replaced by icons. From the rock star formerly known as Prince to e-mail "smileys" to the NAFTA-induced symbolic laundry labels, the names and words we use to describe the world are being replaced by a set of universal hieroglyphs. Leading the charge, as one would expect, are the organizations that stand to make the most money in a less text-dependent world: multinational corporations. With the decline of words, they now can fill in the blank of the consumer's associative mind with whatever images they deem appropriate.

After watching Nike do it, several companies have decided to go textless themselves, including Mercedes-Benz, whose icon is easily confused with the peace sign (an association that can only help). According to one of their print ads, "right behind every powerful icon lies a powerful idea," which is precisely the definition of a global communications medium for an accelerated culture. Pepsi's new textless symbol does not need any verbal justification because it so clearly imitates the yin-yang symbol. In fact, a close look reveals it to be almost identical to the Korean national flag, which is itself a stylized yin-yang symbol in red, white, and blue.

Never underestimate the power of symbols. Textless corporate symbols operate at a level beneath the radar of rational language, and the power they wield can be corrupting. Advertising that relies on propaganda methods can grab you and take you somewhere whether you want to go or not; and as history tells us, it matters where you're going.

Language is the mediator between our minds and the world, and the thing that defines us as rational creatures. By going textless, Nike and other corporations have succeeded in performing partial lobotomies on our brains, conveying their messages without engaging our rational minds. Like Pavlov's bell, the Swoosh has become a stimulus that elicits a conditioned response. The problem is not that we buy Nike shoes, but that we've been led to do so by the same methods used to train Pavlov's dogs. It's ironic, of course, that this reflex is triggered by a stylized check mark—the standard reward for academic achievement and ultimate symbol for the rational, linguistically agile mind.

If sport is the religion of the modern age, then Nike has successfully become the official church. It is a church whose icon is a window between this world and the other, between your existing self (you overweight slob) and your Nike self (you god of fitness), where salvation lies in achieving the athletic Nietzschean ideal: no fear, no mercy, no second place. Like the Christian fish, the Swoosh is a true religious icon in that it both symbolizes the believer's reality and actually participates in it. After all, you do have to wear something to attain this special salvation, so why not something emblazoned with the Swoosh?

Excerpted from re:generation quarterly (Summer 1997). Subscriptions: $19.95/yr. (4 issues) from Box 3000, Danville, NJ 07834-9369.