Just Do It has been synonymous with Nike since the slogan started back decades ago in 1988. Since then, it has become one of the most recognizable and popular phrases worldwide and helped Nike raise merchandise and gear sales.
Taking a step back and looking at the simple three-word combination, you might think it’s a catchphrase that the marketing team randomly came up with.
However, the iconic pairing of words was actually inspired by a notorious murderer's final words back in the 1970s. Let’s take a look at how the infamous slogan was created from a criminal’s past.
How It All Started
It was 1976, and Gary Gilmore had just robbed and murdered a gas station attendant and a motel worker. He had also shot himself in the hand, so he went over to his cousin’s residence for medical aid but instead, she turned him over to the police.
He was sentenced to death by firing squad and sent to Utah State Prison the same year. By the time he reached death row in January 1977, it had only been three months since he had been sent to prison.
Before his death, he was asked for his final words.
In the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Executioner’s Song, he reportedly gave the last words, “Let’s do it.” Years later, it would be revisited by a particular agency that Nike worked with.
A Slogan Was Born From These Words
A decade later in 1988, Dan Wieden, an advertising executive who had co-founded an agency called Wieden & Kennedy, made a pitch to Nike. At the time, Nike wasn’t actually the dominant brand in the market, with competitors like Reebok beating them out in every corner.
Nike was actually dropping market shares, and Wieden knew Nike was up for trying something new to gain back their influence.
He stumbled upon the story of the Utah killer, whose final words gave him an idea. It wasn’t a story of inspiration but rather a focus on the intention of the phrase. More specifically, he wanted to focus on the do it part, which formed the pitch he eventually took to Nike.
This was when Wieden came up with the phrase, Just Do It. He wanted something that could connect to everyone, from athletes to everyday people.
“I was trying to write something that would tie it up, so it could speak to women who had just started walking to get in shape, to people who were world-class athletes — and it had the same kind of connection with them.” — Dan Wieden
Ironically, most people had hated the idea, including Phil Knight himself, Nike’s co-founder. Knight even stated that Nike “didn’t need that s — .”
However, Wieden knew he had a gold mine of an idea and convinced Knight to go through with it. Eventually, they ran with the slogan, and in the same year, Nike premiered an ad with Walt Stack, an 80-year-old marathon runner from San Francisco.
The Slogan Was a Massive Success
From that ad, Just Do It became the company’s signature slogan. Little needs to be said, but the slogan blew up and turned Nike into a global multi-billion-dollar sporting company with hundreds of marketing campaigns centered around these words.
Even looking at historical stock performances, you can see 1988 was the major inflection point in Nike’s skyrocketing growth during that decade. Previously it had simply either performed beneath the S&P or just around it.
The slogan has since created countless campaigns, some of which have been timeless for Nike. In a recent campaign for their 30th anniversary, they signed a deal with Colin Kaepernick, the NFL quarterback that kneeled during the national anthem in protest of police shootings of unarmed black men.
Nike has used its slogan as a centerpiece for everything they do, including sponsoring celebrity athletes and participating in various social issues.
It has become a part of Nike’s identity even though the story of those three words will always have a more sinister past than most will realize.