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Just Do It: How the iconic Nike tagline built a career for the late Dan Wieden

The 'Just Do It' logo seen at a store on Gran Via street in Madrid.
SOPA Images
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SOPA Images/LightRocket via Gett
The 'Just Do It' logo seen at a store on Gran Via street in Madrid.

The marketing and advertising world lost a titan of the industry after the passing of Dan Wieden.

Wieden was a cofounder of the advertising firm Wieden and Kennedy, as well as the brain behind many iconic brand campaigns, and died last Friday at the age of 77.

Dan Wieden at an award show in 2011.
Vince Bucci / AP Images for AdColor
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AP Images for AdColor
Dan Wieden at an award show in 2011.

Wieden was widely known for his innovative and hugely successful marketing campaigns for companies like Old Spice, Procter and Gamble, and Coca Cola.

But his biggest claim to fame came in 1988, when he created a slogan for his newly formed advertising firm's first client: Nike.

Wieden coined the tagline, "Just Do It" for the then smaller sportswear brand based out of Oregon. The phrase immediately took off, and signaled an upward trajectory for Wieden and Kennedy, as well as Nike.

Nick DePaula, an NBA feature writer at ESPN said that the creativity shared between the brands was a recipe for success.

"Not only was the slogan great, and also approachable and vague enough that anybody could apply it to whatever it was they were trying to aspire to do," De Paula said. "But in that year of 1988, when the slogan was launched, they were coming on the same timeline of the Air Jordan 3, the Air Trainer 1, and the Air Revolution, which were three of the biggest shoes in the company history all at once."


It was a moment that shifted design, innovation, and the ethos of advertising.

"That campaign, along with those shoes in particular, sort of built the foundation for Nike to take off in the '90s," DePaula added.

The origin of the tagline comes from surprisingly macabre inspiration, something that admirers say was just part of his out-of-the-box thinking.

In an interview with Design Indaba, Wieden revealed the phrase was inspired by the final words of an death row inmate who was facing execution and said, "You know, let's do it."

"I remember when I read that I was like, that's amazing. I mean how, in the face of that much uncertainty, do you push through that? So I didn't like the 'let's' thing, and so I just changed that, cause otherwise I'd have to give him credit," Wieden joked.

Regardless of it's grisly origin, the slogan helped launch the Wieden and Kennedy advertising firm to global success.

And despite that rapid growth, Wieden was known by many for his grounded and humble mindset, as well as fostering a progressive and welcoming workplace for his employees.

Natalie Welch, who worked at Wieden and Kennedy for five years, said that Wieden's approach to the company was completely unique in their industry.

"It really was kind of this humbleness and this idea that there wasn't a hierarchy... It didn't feel like there were barriers between the different levels," she said.

Welch added that in a primarily white and male-dominated industry, Wieden and Kennedy's early emphasis on diversity and inclusion helped foster creativity.

"This was before #MeToo and all that, and it felt like there was just really commitment to diversity and to just come here, be yourself, and that's kind what you just felt every time you walked into the building," Welch said.

A devoted humanitarian, Wieden, alongside his family, founded Caldera Arts, a summer camp in central Oregon that focused on art and the environment, and was geared towards young people with limited opportunities to explore their creativity. Over the years, Caldera evolved into a larger program offering residencies and mentorships.

After Wieden's passing, the entire Wieden and Kennedy website was converted into a memorial page for him, listing accomplishments and expressing gratitude for his work, closing out with a quote from Wieden himself.

"Excellence is not a formula. Excellence is the grand experiment. It ain't mathematics. It's jazz."

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