Who knew the immortal phrase that would come to define a brand was originally from the words of a murderer. Well, sort of. It was a late winter night. Dave Wieden, co-founder of ad agency Wieden+Kennedy, was trying to think of an idea for a television ad that would suit their client, Nike.
At the time it was the first television campaign they had attempted. So far, they had five different tv spots with different teams working intensely on each one. But the project was lacking consistency: something clever and catchy that would bind each one together. Then, in the dead of night, Wieden remembered something: the last words of a killer. Using them, he created a catchphrase that would go on to become Nike’s slogan for many years to come: Just do it.
Nike had reached a slump in the 1980s: actually its deepest slump ever. They had a difficulty reaching part of their target audience: elite athletes, especially men in competitive sports. We all know the trickle down effect of advertising: famous guy, or girl wears the product, and everyone else wants to buy it so they can look and feel exactly like them. Basically, the law of envy and association.
At the time Nike had a stiff rivalry with Reebok. Both were competing for control of the sneaker market. But Nike was losing. They knew they had a possible cash crop in the form of their product. And a sizable market for it: pro and college athletes comprised only 1 million, while the fitness universe was more than 100 times larger.
Jerome Conlon, Director of Marketing Insights & Planning, and Scott Bedbury, Director of Advertising, decided to approach Wieden+Kennedy, Nike’s ad agency, for assistance. What they got was “Just Do It”.
These were a variation on the last words of convicted killer Gary Gilmore. Gilmore, having spent most his life in and out of prisons, was arrested for the robbery and murder of two Utah men, a gas station attendant and motel clerk. His motive: apparently nothing.
In 1977, Gilmore was sentenced to death. And his death would be memorable as the first U.S. execution in a decade since the Supreme Court had lifted a ban on the death penalty. Gilmore was very ideological. He believed that life in prison was cruel and unusual punishment. He even went so far as to disavow his lawyers, waiving his right to defense. And he saw his time coming: if he was going to die, he wanted to die with dignity. Utah had a law that said prisoners could choose their method of execution from either hanging or firing squad. Gilmore went the Siberian route: he chose the firing squad.
A hearing board granted his wish. When he was lined up they asked him if he had any last words. Gilmore said simply “Let’s do it,” challenging the guards to take their best shot. Which they said. But the ballsy nature of his last statement is what really resonated with Wieden. Inspired, he decided to alter this slightly and came up with the phrase “Just Do It.”
At first Nike was less than lukewarm to the prospect. They initiated hated the slogan, but Wieden, channeling his inner Draper, managed to convince them. Later that year, the slogan made its first debut in the advertisement.
“Just Do It” turned out to be exactly the boost Nike needed to expand its market. It gained the upper hand in the sneakers war, overtaking Reebok, and moving on to become a global sensation. Everyone knows the label now. Campaign magazine even went so far as to call it the best tagline of the 20th century.
But we can’t leave out the man who inspired it. A killer’s gutsy remark in the face of death became the slogan for a worldwide brand. And it fits accordingly, for the average Nike consumer. Their message is simple: don’t stop and think about it. Just do it.