The Real Story Behind Nike’s Famous Slogan

Nitish Menon
5 min readApr 2, 2020

In September 2018, the former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick became the new face of Nike’s “Just Do It” advertising campaign.

For those of you who were talking about the Kaepernick commercial, did you know the origin behind Nike’s “Just Do It” tagline?

What you are about to read next will blow your mind.

Fasten your seat belts!

Dan Weiden

Source: PYTKA

The story dates back to 1988, when Dan Wieden, co-founder of the renowned ad agency, Wieden & Kennedy, was hired by Nike, to produce a great tagline to brand the company’s products and services.

The need for a great tagline was imminent for a few reasons mentioned further in this article. So, continue reading to find out more.

Now, coming up with a short and powerful phrase can be an incredibly challenging task. Wieden needed something that would inspire as well as have a major impact on buyers, create a broad appeal, and build a sustainable brand.

He was hitting his head against a brick wall, charting future steps in deciding on a potential slogan for the brand.

Gary Gilmore

Source: Biography

Ten years prior to this, within the same city, there was a man pursuing the absolute opposite life journey compared to Weiden.

36-year-old Gary Gilmore was a violent criminal known for harming people and robbing local businesses. On July 19th, he robbed a gas station and subsequently forced the employee lay face down on the ground at gunpoint before executing him. The next day, he robbed a motel and had this employee lie down to execute him as well. Both the victims were innocent.

Shortly after these incidents, he was arrested and brought to trial, where he was then convicted. The judge imposed the fatal death sentence upon him. He was given the option to choose death by the firing squad or being hung: Gilmore requested that it be done by the firing squad. He was the first person to be executed in the US in a 10-year period.

On the day of his execution, he was fastened to a chair and placed in front of five police officers from his county, holding rifles. Just before placing a bag over his head, the executioner asked Gilmore, “Any last words?”

Gilmore replied, “Let’s do it.”

Nike vs Reebok

Source: Youtube

Ten years following Gary Gilmore was executed, Nike was still in a rough spot. Yes, they did do well in the early 1980s. They decided to go public, establishing themselves as a big global company, and also signing on stars like Michael Jordan as one of their brand ambassadors. Although, they did miss the boat on aerobics.

Reebok, on the other hand, did not miss that boat. In fact, they capitalized on this moment of weakness shown by Nike.

Nike’s annual report in the year 1987 was really poor. Their sales had dropped by 18 percent, earnings had declined by 40 percent to $0.93 a share, and they struggled in gaining market share within the apparel and footwear industry.

Nike needed something to change, and quickly.

For Nike’s next campaign, advertising genius Dan Wieden thought the company needed a new slogan. His firm was based in the same location of Gilmore’s execution.

He then reflected on Gilmore’s last words “Let’s Do It”, and regarded it as quite a remarkable statement.

Nancy Reagan

Source: The Nation

Nancy Reagan, Former First Lady of the US, in the 1970s had launched the “Just Say No” movement. This movement was launched as the US government’s effort to revisit and expand the War on Drugs. Just Say No eventually became an American catch phrase in the 1980s which evoked support and criticism from the general public.

Inspired by this slogan, Weiden decided to combine Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign along with Gary Gilmore’s “Let’s Do It” statement. This finally resulted in the creation of the tagline, ‘‘Just Do It.

The Massive Impact

This slogan had a huge impact on Nike’s financial growth. They also began to resonate as a social brand because they opened people’s eyes to what they can do as a brand.

I would like to ask you here, “Would Nike be the Nike we all know today if not for the ‘Just Do It’ tagline?”

Probably not.

Many believed that the “Just Do It” tagline captured the individualistic spirit of “I’m in control” during the 1980s. Let’s take Gary Gilmore, for example. He decided to take control of his life by deciding to be executed in front of the firing squad.

Although, the murderer mashup might seem strange at first, the slogan’s success has been incredible and noteworthy. It has caught on and is used widely everywhere today.

The success all began from the launch of their first advertisement.

The first “Just Do It” advertisement featured an 80-year-old jogger in the year 1988. Watch the video below:

Source: Youtube

The phrase “Just Do It” lives on as one of the most significant marketing phrases in the world. The source of this tagline, however, could not be more grim.

People are typically shocked to learn this about the history behind Nike’s famous slogan. So, if anything, you now have a great party fact up your sleeve.

Truer words have not been spoken when they say:

“Inspiration can come from anywhere.”



Nitish Menon

Marketer writing about business, marketing, strategy, and other experiences from life.