NEW YORK—In 1967, the company that would become the world-famous shoe brand Nike needed an identity for its new, state-of-the-art running shoe.
Co-founders Phil Knight and Bill Bowerman settled on “Aztec,” according to Knight’s autobiography. But industry giant Adidas had a track spike called “Azteca Gold” and was allegedly threatening to sue.
Chewing over their choices, the Oregon entrepreneurs fired the first volley of a decades-long rivalry with the German shoemaker. Knight explained how their displeasure with Adidas led to the eventual selection. “Who was that guy who kicked the (crap) out of the Aztecs?” Bowerman asked Knight. “Cortes,” he responded. “OK,” Bowerman said, “let’s call it the Cortez.”
In the 50 years since that fateful (if impolitic) branding decision, Nike became both commercial behemoth and cultural phenomenon, catering to the feet of athletes and couch potatoes alike.
But by last year, the tide of the long battle had turned. Adidas AG was once again ascendant via two sneakers originally designed in the 1960s: the Stan Smith and the Superstar. They outsold every other kick in America and sent Adidas’s share of the U.S. footwear market skyward by 83 per cent — with much of those gains swiped from Nike.
Beaverton, Ore.-based Nike Inc. was losing ground for the first time in decades. Future orders fell 4 per cent in three months ended February, from both retail partners and the company’s own stores. Every geographic region, save emerging markets, posted a major drop in business.
Nike really needed a winner — a surefire hit that would once again fill sidewalks and stadiums with Swooshes, from the runways of SoHo to the pressure-sensing track that Knight bought for the University of Oregon. In September of last year, CEO Mark Parker started laying the groundwork. He told analysts and investors that, like Adidas, Nike would look to past successes to win today’s market. The Cortez, he announced, would be making a comeback.
The reboot was big, even by Nike standards. In May, the company enlisted supermodel Bella Hadid for an elaborate photo shoot. First she reclined across the bench seat of a massive, Jimmy Carter-era car, the sneakers brilliant against the brown velour. Next she sat on a metallic-gold BMX bike, her shoes stuffed with white-cotton dad socks. Then she squatted down with a tiny skateboard, wearing a sports bra and high-waisted, flared jeans, a nod to a decades-old shot of 1970s favourite Farrah Fawcett.