Close-Up: Live issue - It ain't what you do it's the way that you 'just do it'

Nike is celebrating its 20th year of inspiring people to 'Just do it'. Noel Bussey reflects on the brand and its iconic strapline.

In Doncaster, in the late 80s and early 90s, there was a huge spate of kids having their trainers nicked off their feet.

At this time, the only trainer for the fashion-conscious school kid was a pair of Nike Air Jordan's. Unfortunately, this also meant that they were the object of desire for the hundreds of reprobates and ne'er-do-wells roaming the town centre and the car-park of the Dome leisure centre.

Such was the force of Nike's iconic advertising for its sponsorship of Michael Jordan, the five-time NBA MVP (most valuable player), that his shoes were the must-have item.

But this is only a small fraction of the story of "Just do it", one of the world's most iconic lines, which happens to be 20 years old this year.

Not only has the line (working in unison with its partner - the iconic "swoosh") helped turn Nike into the global behemoth it is today, but it has also been the starting point for some of the most unforgettable sport ads of the past two decades.

Jordan himself makes a return in the next global extravaganza, called "courage", which has been created to celebrate the double decade milestone and lead into the Olympic Games in Beijing.

The ad is a one-minute montage of some of the best sporting moments (well, those where people were wearing Nike) from history, soundtracked by All These Things That I've Done by The Killers.

Although it is obviously a momentous ad for the company, it has received a lukewarm response across the industry, with some commentators saying it is a bit too "triumphant" and "self-aggrandising" while "missing the understated feel of other 'Just do it' ads" that made them so universally loved.

Adrian Holmes, the executive creative director of Y&R Europe, says: "The 'courage' ad just doesn't seem to sit right. Nike should be Obama. This feels like Bush. Part of the line's success over the years has been its ability to be cool and understated, not triumphant."

As with any global phenomenon, there are a number of stories about how the line came into existence. One of the best is that it was coined by a supplier at a trade show who, when approached by some Nike executives, said to them: "You know what I like about you guys? You just do it." This was then appropriated by the quick thinking executives - obviously leaving the ad agency out of the equation completely.

However, Dan Wieden, a founder of Wieden & Kennedy, the company's lead agency for the entire 20 years, disagrees with this and says it was all down to him.

Wieden claims that Nike was looking for a huge campaign from the agency, so they had a lot of creatives working on a lot of scripts for a big piece of TV work.

However, what they didn't have was a common theme to bring them all together, so the day before he had to present the ideas to Nike, he came up with a few different lines.

Apparently, after a difficult sell to his people at the agency, who only chose "Just do it" because it was the best of a bad bunch, the client was also averse to the line.

But, he continued undeterred and eventually an ad, featuring the American football and baseball star Bo Jackson, appeared with the line at the end.

A great strength of the strap is that, even though the ads ostensibly use highly paid and universally adored professional sports stars, it still manages to convey a message of personal achievement, as opposed to winning at someone else's expense - giving the consumer a personal closeness to the brand.

This resonance has been felt all over the world and, according to Nike, thousands of people have written in over the years saying the line had empowered them to accomplish heroic feats, pushed them to achieve more in their lives or even given them the courage to leave abusive husbands.

"The best brand iconography grows beyond its category and plays a role in popular culture." George Bryant, a founder of Brooklyn Brothers, says. "If Coca-Cola gave us a red Father Christmas, then Nike has helped create a culture of 'Just fucking do it'.

"In a culture of bullshit ad lines, 'Just do it' is that rare thing with the power to enter popular culture."

Ian Ellwood, the head of consulting at Interbrand, adds: "It's individualistic and not collective, which was mould-breaking for the time it was created. It was the first slogan that changed straplines from inward facing to outward facing.

"It's just as powerful today as it was 20 years ago and will continue to be for a long time - it does, and will, apply to your life, no matter how old or young you are."

Mark Hunter, the executive creative director at Euro RSCG London, who formerly worked on Nike at W&K in Amsterdam, says that the line's true strength can be seen in the slightly shocking fact that it doesn't actually appear on a lot of the iconic ads.

"The thing you realise very early on when you make Nike ads is how few of them actually carry the words 'Just do it'. The amazing thing is that you think the words are there even when they're not. Some of your favourite 'Just do it' ads are not 'Just do it' ads at all. 'Frozen moment', 'tag', 'airport', none of them end with 'Just do it'. If that isn't the sign of a powerful endline then I don't know what is."

With all of these factors in play, it seems almost inevitable that the company would produce a slew of great ads. In fact, it seems almost impossible to produce anything less. As Bryant says: "The line is great, but the best thing about it isn't that it connects with the public, it's that it gives creative people a great excuse to do good work."

However, now that it's reached the 20-year mark, some are starting to wonder whether the client or the agency will get a little itchy and think about doing the unthinkable and changing it.

Holmes warns against the folly of this: "Long-running campaigns are an endangered species and we need to fight for them. If you're thinking about it, just don't do it."


Ben Priest, Adam & Eve - 'You are so beautiful.' Scars, broken arms and missing teeth all captured by stunning photography. It's so simple and shows us the true cost of just doing it.

Russell Ramsey, JWT - Nike 'tag' is possibly my very favourite TV commercial of all time. It's a very simple idea, beautifully directed and full of irreverent little moments.

Jon Burley, Leo Burnett - The Eric Cantona poster because of the cheek and audacity of playing with a sacred date in English sporting history.

Nick Gill, BBH - I've always had a soft spot for the old man Walt Stack jogging over the Golden Gate Bridge. It was one of the early ads that really defined what 'Just do it' meant.

Damon Collins, RKCR/Y&R - 'Frozen in time' is a thing of beauty. Its immaculate camera work, casting and styling have 'inspired' a million commercials since.

Tom Ewart, Publicis - My favourite Nike ad is 'St Wayne', because I've always thought the sentiment of 'Just do it' is better expressed in the immediacy of posters.