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Nike’s last words: the rise and fall of “Just Do It”

Chelsea Erieau-Larkin
February 7, 2024

On January 17, 1977, Gary Gilmore was waiting for his execution for the murder of two people. He was asked for his last words.

“Let’s do it,” he said

Ten years later, 1600 miles away in Atlanta, marketing executive Dan Wieden was captivated by the phrase

“I was like, that's amazing. I mean how, in the face of that much uncertainty, do you push through that?”

He pitched the line to Nike for their new marketing campaign, who were skeptical - “lots of shrugged shoulders,” Wieden said. "I said 'Just trust me on this one.’”

But in 1980, Nike was sinking. Competition was heating up from Reebok, Adidas and the aerobic craze. Nike decided to throw their lot in behind a slogan from a murderer on death row, with a small change: “Let’s” to “Just”.

And it became the most famous tagline of all time. 

One analyst writes:

“With its “Just Do It” campaign and strong product, Nike was able to increase its share of the domestic sport-shoe business from 18 percent to 43 percent, from $877 million in worldwide sales to $9.2 billion in the ten years between 1988 and 1998. Nike spent $300 million on overseas advertising alone; most of it centered around the “Just Do It” campaign.”

Sit with that for a minute. They poured their entire marketing budget into a three line slogan, doubling the market share, increasing their sales by 1000%. It’s eye-watering. Today, more Americans are familiar with ‘Just do it’ than with their own three branches of government. 

Why was Nike so blisteringly successful in such a saturated market? Who did Dan Wieden sell his soul to?

1. Make fitness marketing both universal and personal

Dan Wieden understood what most marketers don’t: sociology. He intuitively grasped what sociologist C. Wright Mills famously articulated: "Neither the life of an individual nor the history of a society can be understood without understanding both." 

This principle, at the heart of the sociological imagination, guided Wieden to create a message that resonated deeply on both personal and societal levels. Marketers, take note.

As Nike stated after the first ‘Just do it’  ad: “It became both universal and intensely personal. It spoke of sports. It invited dreams. It was a call to action, a refusal to listen to excuses and a license to be eccentric, courageous, and exceptional. It was Nike.”

During the 1980s, the fitness movement was sweeping across the globe, bringing with it a universal challenge: the internal battle of motivation. This era underscored a fundamental principle in marketing—identifying the pain points that consumers face and presenting solutions to overcome them.

Pain points, in marketing, refer to specific problems that prospective customers of your business are experiencing. In simpler terms, these are the issues or challenges that keep your target audience up at night. They’re strong drivers for action - and putting the solution to pain points in front of eyes is the challenge of marketing. At Hapana, we develop our gym management software to target and solve pain points - both for the managers, and for the members.

An individual person has clear pain points. They want to be healthy, desirable, cool. They may imagine that the pathway to being that person probably means exercising. 

But exercising isn’t easy. It can be embarrassing, sweaty, painful, and might require discipline beyond what they feel they can expend. For many people, this barrier was a serious pain point.

“Just do it,” Nike said to that person. “Just do it. You can. You will.” It was a wake-up call. It was intensely personal, down to the bone of a person’s self-perception. 

But here’s the secret of marketing: when you speak to an individual’s inner struggles, you’re speaking to everyone. 

By leveraging the sociological imagination, Wieden didn't just contribute to Nike's success; he crafted a message that continues to motivate and inspire, proving that the most effective marketing speaks to both the individual and the collective.

2. Market to the casual fitness enthusiast as well as the serious athletes

“I felt we needed a tagline… that spoke to the hardest hardcore athletes as well as those talking up a morning walk,” Wieden said, when asked about how he created the first fitness marketing presentation for Nike.

Co-founder of Nike, Phil Knight, said that this pivot in marketing saved the company.

“We were missing an immense group. We understood our “core consumers,” the athletes who were performing at the highest level of the sport. We saw them as being at the top of a pyramid, with weekend jocks in the middle of the pyramid, and everybody else who wore athletic shoes at the bottom. Even though about 60% of our product is bought by people who don’t use it for the actual sport, everything we did was aimed at the top. We said, if we get the people at the top, we’ll get the others because they’ll know that the shoe can perform.”

“But that was an oversimplification. Sure, it’s important to get the top of the pyramid, but you’ve also got to speak to the people all the way down.”

The marketing drive to capture every audience was there in the slogan, right from the beginning. All of Nike’s new marketing principles were contained in those three words. 

‘Just do it’ was a mantra that whispered in the ear of anyone trying to push past the comfort of their couch, and shouted in the hearts of athletes striving for one more lap, one more set, one more second.

The history of Nike's Just Do It slogan – Creative review

Nike’s former CMO, Davide Grasso, has even said they don’t even believe in slogans - rather, ‘Just do it’ is more of a company mission, a unifying purpose. “I think that’s why ‘Just do it’ has had such an impact over the last 20 years and continues to. It’s genuine and speaks to our core mission,” Grasso says.

3. Help your audience aspire to your brand as a lifestyle

Elevating your brand from a mere choice to a lifestyle aspiration is the holy grail of marketing. Nike has turned this into an art form. They've not just etched their name in the market, but woven it into the cultural fabric itself.

Nike's story is a masterclass in selling dreams, not just sneakers. From the very beginning of their campaign, they looped in great athletes that everyday people admired and aspired to: Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Ronaldinho. In the 90s, Nike added Tiger Woods, Lance Armstrong, and WNBA players like Sheryl Swoopes to their marketing roster.

Wayne Rooney for Nike

In a 2000 strategic analysis of Nike, it was recorded that Nike was “blindsided” in 1985, “when Reebok developed its multicolored aerobic shoes.”

“It was then that we decided to reinvent our business and culture, becoming highly motivated about selling sports and a "Nike way-of-life." With this decision the company also restructured its marketing campaign, focusing more on an image rather than just product advertising, a strategy which led to the "Just Do It" mantra.”

It wasn’t about the sneakers anymore; it was about what you could achieve wearing them. Nike shoes became associated with achieving greatness. 

4. Boost your marketing campaigns with virality 

In 2015, a GIF of Shia Lebeouf screaming “Just do it!” was listed by Google as the top GIF that defined the year. 

It went viral for three reasons:

  1. It was satirical 
  2. It was reformattable  
  3. It was genuinely inspiring

Despite being a parody of fitness motivational culture, it created a conversation around the very thing it was making fun of. Hundreds of comments on the original video reflect on how much this video helped motivate them. 

Virality is a function of appropriation. Memes are nothing more than particular ideas appropriated for new purposes over and over again. With the green screen in the video, and the universal message of “Just do it,” netizens could multiply the message across media at the speed of light. 

Dollar Shave Club built their brand from viral marketing tactics. They released a comedic video called “Our Blades Are F*cking Great”. The cost of the video? Just 4.5k. But it gained them 12,000 new subscription sign-ups in only two days. They went from an unknown brand to a serious competitor for Gillette.

Virality, done right, can expand cultural awareness faster and more cheaply than nearly any other method. 

The unfortunate state of effective fitness marketing: controlled controversy is currency 

In 2018, Nike partnered with big athletes like NBA star LeBron James and footballer Colin Kaepernick. 

In the wake of political controversy surrounding Kaepernick, Wieden’s agency Wieden+Kennedy advised Nike to base their next campaign directly on the controversy—sparking debate, boycotts, but crucially, a buzz that you can’t buy with traditional advertising.

This move was a calculated gamble that paid off, highlighting a nuanced truth: controversy, when it aligns with your brand's core values, can be incredibly (and unfortunately) potent. 

Dan Wieden's foundational work laid the groundwork for bold and socially conscious advertising that the Kaepernick campaign leaned into.

Immediately after the campaign, a group of politically-charged Americans began burning their new Nikes. #JustBurnIt became an enormous online trend, and Nike’s stock price took a temporary hit. Many saw this as something to avoid in their own marketing - but did the controversy really affect Nike?

Directly after the viral campaign, Nike recorded a 31% increase in online sales. They also gained a mind-blowing $7.6 million in media value - with some agencies estimating as high as $163.5 million - and an extra 170,000 followers on Instagram. A week after the ad, their stock price closed at a record high.

It was a genius marketing idea, even if it was a gamble. As Wieden’s legacy came to show, the best marketing ideas rely on out-of-the-box thinking. 

Where do marketing ideas come from?

“The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” Old Spice campaign was a revolution in marketing. It was funny. It was fresh. It cut through noise in a market that was nothing but noise. 

It’s hard to imagine a time when Old Spice didn’t dominate the men’s deodorant market - but until Dan Wieden got a hold of it, Old Spice was on its way out. The creative ads and risky messaging Old Spice is now known for were only possible because they were allowed to do anything in a last-ditch effort to save a dying brand. 

Enter Wieden’s touch, and suddenly, Old Spice was not just a fragrance; it was an internet sensation, a harbinger of virality in an age just grasping its potential. Through campaigns that balanced wit with whimsy, Wieden reinvented Old Spice as a brand synonymous with confidence, charisma, and a certain irreverent charm that appealed to the meme-loving masses. 

It was a courageous pivot from tradition to trendsetter, showing how even the oldest brands could find new life with the right narrative twist.

As Wieden said: “The best ideas come as jokes. Make your thinking as funny as possible.”

He had a challenge on his hands with bigger brands like Procter & Gamble and Coca-Cola. How could he inject soul and story into everyday products and soft drinks - especially with enormous brands and bigger stakes? 

His answer lay in universal themes—family, happiness, the moments that matter. 

For Procter & Gamble, it meant elevating the mundane into moments of care and connection, turning everyday routines into rituals of love and attention. 

With Coca-Cola, he tapped into the collective craving for joy, community, and shared experiences, reinforcing the brand’s image as a conduit for happiness.

Who hasn’t felt ever something when they watched an ad for Coca-Cola, Proctor & Gamble, Nike, or even Old Spice?

Marketing is not about selling a product. It’s about selling a slice of the human experience. 

Wieden’s work shows the power of storytelling, the effectiveness of simplicity, and the importance of aligning a brand with the broader cultural currents.

If you’re stuck for ideas in your marketing, remember: you know what people want. You do know, because you are one of them. So what do you want? Joy, fulfillment, to reach your potential, to be respected, loved, to become someone unrestrained by fear? 

In your very own answers is the marketing gold. Dan Wieden knew where to dig for it, and anyone familiar enough with being human can dig for it too. 

How Hapana can help with fitness marketing

For those navigating the complex waters of fitness marketing and beyond, Wieden’s legacy leaves behind the most important lessons of effective marketing: resonate on a personal level, embrace the universality of the human condition, and, perhaps most importantly, dare to distil your message to its essence.

Sometimes that means finding the life in the last words of a murderer. Sometimes that means finding the seriousness in a joke. 

As Wieden said, in his own last words: "Excellence is not a formula. Excellence is the grand experiment. It ain't mathematics. It's jazz.”

At Hapana, we aim to create excellence in studio management. With intuitive, modern software that can streamline class scheduling, trainer organization, payment processing, and social media management, Hapana elevates your studio experience to new heights. Our platform integrates seamlessly with leading social channels and marketing tools, helping your campaigns resonate deeply and personally.

Do you want to redefine excellence in your studio management and marketing?