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The Nike Equation : JUST DO IT: The Nike Spirit in the Corporate World, By Donald Katz (Random House: $23; 352 pp.)

July 17, 1994|Joel Drucker | Joel Drucker has been an editor with "City Sports" and a consumer marketing consultant with such public relations firms as Burson-Marsteller and Edelman Worldwide

Successfully marketing consumer products is a three-sided equation: the right product in the right place at the right time. Over the last 20 years, few corporations can match the track record of Nike. Titling his book with the very three words Nike has spent millions spreading, Donald Katz has written "a description of the company on the move through 17 months of glory and panic and fervid economic activity--between the Summer Olympics of 1992 and the beginning of 1994."

The three-word message most closely associated with Nike is "Just Do It," a tagline not too subtly linking good old American pragmatism with sexual innuendo and exemplary decisiveness. In an era when just doing anything is fraught with physical, emotional and social complications, along comes Nike--they took the name of the Greek goddess of victory--with a call to action, turning what were once functional sneakers into cultural statements.

"Unlike so many other businesses in which sporting metaphors have become a part of the everyday managerial vocabulary--'quarterbacking a committee' and the like," writes Katz, "Nike is a gigantic, multifaceted sports metaphor."

Granted access to the inner circle of Phil Knight, Nike's elusive CEO and founder, Katz sets out to explain that metaphor. He digs deep, with ample material from past and present Nike employees in advertising, sales, product development and more. Nike, once perceived as "the 'Saturday Night Live' of the Fortune 500," is positively described as "something of a model of the global, postindustrial enterprise."

A principle component is an irreverent corporate culture that attempts to bring "Just Do It" to life by synthesizing baby-boomer individualism with the pursuit of profit. In the clumsy style that marks much of this book, Katz writes that Nike was launched by "a generation composed of citizens often frustrated in their more cooperative liberatory efforts before self-discovery appeared to loom just a few miles down the road." The duty-bound corporation of the '50s has given way to the mission-driven, allegedly flattened hierarchy of the '90s. Start the revolution. Never mind that Phil Knight is a Stanford MBA who spent a good deal of the '60s working at the Price Waterhouse accounting firm. Never mind the incomprehensible "matrix" Nike substitutes for coherent organization. "The entrepreneurial spirit of the early dream was carefully protected, sanctified," Katz writes.

But the most prominent element in Nike's success are the athletes, those billboard-gobbling, TV-hogging, larger-than-life heroes like Michael Jordan, Bo Jackson and Andre Agassi. "The athlete," Katz quotes Knight, "remains our reason for being."

Even though Nike's success is vivid proof of Madison Avenue's powers, Katz points out Knight's belief that advertising is "phony." Cherishing athletes and "authenticity," Knight likens Nike to "an experience company," in the process coming off as woefully deluded about his company's social value.

Piercing through Knight's naive beliefs, Katz adroitly notes that no more than 40% of Nike shoe buyers wear the shoes for their intended sport. Various sections explain the development of shoes and campaigns for Air Jordan, cross-training ("Bo Knows"), tennis and other product lines. Even if they don't play sports much, Nike buyers do enjoy relationships with the products, particularly through television, where new ads "were treated like new plays or books."

For all the hype about Knight as a visionary and "the most powerful man in sports," little in this book shows him as anything more than an introverted fellow and astute marketer who wisely read the tea leaves of the fitness-as-fashion boom. While Katz is adequate at sharing anecdotes about Knight's penchant for driving fast and zest for winning tennis matches, a major frustration of this book is his inability to take a stand and try to assess Knight as anything more than secretive, shy and a bit fatalistic. In his preface, Katz praises Knight for always returning his calls and opening Nike's doors to him. There is a great sense throughout this book that the author has been seduced by a Byzantine subject versed enough in contemporary public relations to know that the appearance of openness is likely the best defense against rigorous inquiry.

All too often, this book takes on a rambling quality that leaves little indication of a particular plot, the emotional needs of its characters or the broad issues governing Nike through the period of investigation. The chapters, organized strictly by chronological locale, ("Barcekibam August 1992," "Kansas City, June 1993"), do little to advance the alleged story of these tumultuous 17 months. They read more like discrete articles than pieces of a larger whole.

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