The Holy Breath of Inspiration

swoosh.gifThe market is Western culture’s cosmology. In the space where symbols, archetypes and elemental energies once occupied the Western psyche, the brand has grown into the vacancy left by a shift of culture towards ever-increasing commoditization of consciousness. One does not have to look very far to observe parallels between brand-stories and core human tendencies to meet the need of myth.
The Nike swoosh is a great example of a brand that holds a key to one of these core mythological human needs. The swoosh is air. It is ethereal and quickly able to “Just Do It.” It moves effortlessly and with great power. The Nike corporation defines itself as being in service to human potential. According to Nike, “If you have a body, you are an athlete.” Basically, the story of the swoosh proclaims a universal truth: if you are breathing, you are alive, and you are wrought with physical potential through the breath, the element of air.

According to David Abram, author of The Spell of the Sensuous, our verbiage is formed by sounds in nature. Therefore, it is not uncommon to notice that certain words, like swoosh, replicate the sounds of what they represent. Swoosh is definitely a wind word. Abram also notes that the holy word for the un-nameable divine essence, Yahweh, actually represents the breath by inhale (yah) and exhale (weh). If one takes a deep breath with lips slightly parted, the subtle sound of yah-weh can be heard. So, the essence of living consciousness, breath, is the only sound-name to approximate the divinity of what cannot be described: the mystery of life.
Did the creators of the swoosh know what they were doing? Did they know they were tapping into such primal human depths? Probably not. The story goes that in 1971 Phil Knight asked Carolyn Davidson, then newly graduated graphic designer, to design a shoe stripe for his small company. His response to her design was, “I don’t love it, but it will grow on me.” He paid $35 for her work.
Furthermore, Nike has built its brand identity in association with superstar athlete Michael Jordan. Nike’s brand story is so potent, it successfully connects itself with a typically marginalized sector of Western culture, young black men, and demonstrates perceived exceptional achievement against all odds. That is an emphatic “Just Do It.”
It is worth considering whether or not the Nike swoosh would be a recognizable global brand, whether or not it would speak to a core human story, without its primal and mythological aspects.

5 responses

  1. Palma,
    I like the connection you’ve made of breath to activity (and to Nike). If breath is divine (Yahweh), is active, heavy breath (like that of challenging physical activity) more divine?
    It’s also important to separate the brand’s attributes (such as performance, human potentials, etc.) from the visual mnemonics for the brand (like the swoosh). The swoosh is globally recognized and triggers recognition of Nike’s brand attributes but it doesn’t create these attributes itself. That has been done by everything Nike’s accomplished (and missed), such as its advertising, retailing, product design, manufacturing, customer service, other promotion, etc.
    Nike’s brand has power because it, too, is globally recognized and experienced across many media. Nike’s original brand attributes were built around AUTHENTIC, SPORTS (or athletic) PERFORMANCE and they’ve never strayed very far from this. They’ve been able to expand this into somewhat non-sports areas, including HUMAN POTENTIAL but even this is still limited mostly to human physcial activity potential.
    Phil Knight did choose Nike as the name because of its connotations with “victory” so he had some inkling of the larger themes at work. I don’t think anyone, whoever, could have forseen where they eventually took the brand.
    BTW, Carolyn Davidson was given a bunch of stock back in the 1990s as a thank you for the original swoosh (which has since been stretched to fit bigger in stadium advertising and the “Nike” was deleted from the original logo).
    BTW 2, “Nike Air” is a sub-brand that is supposed to only be used for Nike’s “Air” show cushioning technology, though it shows up in places where the technology doesn’t exist (like on socks). This has always bothered me as it’s an inconsistent use of the brand.

  2. Nick,
    An interesting bit of trivia about the SF Niketown: The marketing folks at Nike hated it when it first opened (and probably still do). They nicknamed it “Sports Gap” because they felt that it was more a Gap store selling sporting goods than an authentic reflection of the Nike brand (as is done in their original stores in Portland and Chicago). They really view Niketowns as a special place that is more than just a store. These “brand temples” are opportunitites to control the entire brand experience in a retail environment and, to Nike, that should be more than just selling things in a nice-looking space. It should include interactions with other customers (such as running clubs) and learning (about the product’s performance benefits as well as how to play your sport better).

  3. Palma – this is a great post. I could write volumes in response to it as it gets right to the heart of what “brands” are, and that striving for meaning that makes people develop emotional attachments to them.
    One of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen in terms of marketing and branding was when NikeTown opened in San Francsico. I happened to be downtown at 8am on a Saturday (it’s highly unusual for me to me awake at that hour on a Saturday, but that’s another story).
    Anyway, I came upon an line of people (mostly Asian teenagers) no less than 5 blocks long patiently waiting for the grand opening of the store at 10am. There were a handful of protesters mumbling something about sweatshops, but that didn’t dampen the enthusiasm of this massive crowd who were loyally waiting for their chance to worship at this glorious new temple that was about to open.
    ***For another truly incredible spectacle, check out this video of the Apple store opening in Tokyo. I challenge you to sit through the whole thing. It’s AMAZING****
    The Nike swoosh, and the Apple brand, for other reasons, have indeed captured something that goes very much into the spiritual.
    Nike was the winged godess of victory for the Greeks, and I’m curious how many people (not just Americans) have no idea that this is where the name comes from. It’s also the name for a certain type of missile that was supposed to shoot down incoming ICBMs diring the cold war, but that use of the name has dwindled from people’s conciousness too. What keeps the shoe company’s name alive? What is it they are doing right? They clearly offer a lot more than shoes – they clearly inspire people and somehow make them feel good. I think it would be cynical to say that they are “tricking” people with their marketing to buy into some kind of illusion, there’s obviously a shared experience here between company and customer, and the world at large that’s somehow taking shape.
    Where does it evolve from here? Is it the stuff of science fiction? – a slightly paranoid vision of a world of brand worshipers and ‘nations’ built on allegience to a swoosh? Or is it just a group of people delivering on a promise to make you feel good, to invite you to their church and have a party with you? Watch the Tokyo video!

  4. Thanks for your great comments and additions! I really appreciate the encouragement.
    Funny you should mention Apple, Nick. They are my next subject.
    Also, Nathan, I am aware that Carolyn Davidson was given a huge sum of stock (and a gold swoosh ring), so my portrayal was not meant to make it look like she got ripped off. Your distinctions around brand attributes are critical. Thanks for being so precise.

  5. I’d love to see Joseph Campbell analyze brands through the purview of universal human myth. This should be an entire book…how humans embody their mythology through commercial branding…
    Great post Palma…

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