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

| September/October 1998

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.

4/29/2009 6:11:38 PM

it was the best decision they made to go with just the swoosh!

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