Visual Rhetoric/The Rhetoric of Brand Identity: Nike
The Nike brand is considered a highly effective brand across many disciplines. Business professionals and consumers alike, view the Nike brand as established and well respected. According to Scott Bedbury in his book, "A New Brand World" (2002) "The brand idea is no longer confined just to packaged consumer products. Today the word "brand" has become part of the vernacular within every department of any progressive company (1)." While corporate branding is often at the forefront of brand identity, we choose to take a different approach. We will be examining the visual rhetoric of the Nike brand and how the visual rhetoric components effectiveness and/or ineffectiveness. We will use rhetorical theories based on semiotics, gender, narrative representation and spatial experience. We will be paying specific attention to the Nike logo, slogan, print advertisements, Web site, and the NikeTown retail stores all as mediums for rhetorical branding.
The Logo- Swoosh
Another name for a logo is a trademark or signature (Ryan 393). For Nike, the swoosh has become just that- a signature. With or without the word Nike underneath it, the general population will see the swoosh and associate it with Nike. Regardless of the resemblance to ancient gods or to a check of excellence, the aerodynamic nature of the logo has contributed to the marketing and business success of the brand, as it has imbued a simple brand mnemonic with meaning. This makes the brand more memorable, and use of the brand symbol more effective. However, the success of the swoosh as a visually rhetorical element takes a different angle.
The rhetorical representation of the logo must communicate within one single image everything the organization wants the public to know about them. The logo is the heart of an organization's identity. It will show up on all products and publicity materials and must become synonymous with the organization's actual name. Besides the above stated requirements of effective branding, a logo must go one step further in order to be persuasive visually.
The purpose of visual rhetoric is to persuade visually. The swoosh simultaneously represents athleticism, competition and victory. With one solid brush stroke, viewers of the swoosh know that this is what it means. Yet Nike's audience does not notice this at first upon examination of the swoosh because "visual communication is always coded [and] seems transparent only because we know the code already, at least implicitly" (Kress 32). It looks similar to the wings on the feet of the god Hermes and a wing of the goddess Nike. The swoosh also resembles a check mark which, in American culture, has become representative of success and a job well-done. In semiotics, these implicit, learned code systems are used to create messages. Symbols are culturally bound and have a shared meaning within the culture (Trenholm 376). Nike prides itself in creating state of the art athletic equipment from running shoes to soccer balls and using a logo that rhetorically represents success and visually ties into the ancient gods of sport explains its success as a successful, simple and recognizable trademark. This clear logo is a perfect example of mixing rhetorical semiotics (recognizable links to wings of gods and the check of a job well-done) and simplicity (the logo is one swift brush stroke) to create a rhetorically strong brand basis. As John Berger notes, "publicity images belong to the moment in the sense that they must be continually renewed and made up-to-date. Yet they never speak of the present. Often they refer to the past and always they speak of the future" (Berger 130). For Nike, referring to the wings of Hermes and Nike as well as referring to the cultural symbol of a check communicate their visual argument successfully.
Slogan: "Just Do It"
“Just Do It” is the tag-line associated with the Nike logo. This tag-liness is habitually positioned alongside Nike’s logo, whether it is in a print or television advertisement. Together, the logo and tag-line feature the significance of Nike’s brand goals and ideals-athleticism and victory. The logo design symbol, along with the tag line, has evolved into a motto and the way of life for a whole generation. According to John Heskett, “Objects and environments can be used by people to construct a sense of who they are, to express their sense of identity". The Nike logo and tag-line serve to identify ordinary human beings as icons for action and excellence.
In relating this concept to visual rhetoric, one can look to the readings of Arnheim, Barthes and McCloud and their impressive discussion on semiotic surfaces. Arnheim stresses in his essay that the terms sign, symbol and picture do not stand for kinds of images, but rather, describe the function fulfilled by the images. He discusses how an image serves as a sign to the extent to which it stands for a particular content, without reflecting its characteristics visually. This description can serve written language as well. These concepts are fully present in the Nike brand. The swoosh logo, as well as tag-line, portray a particular image and slogan that stands for a particular content, without reflecting its features visually.
The logo is fundamentally a swoosh. It looks like a check mark. It's plain, simple and yet, unmistakable. It's meaning is more intense, deeper and influential as described in the above section.
The "Just Do It" tag line is similar in this manner. When we read words, the words are describing a content, yet do not reflect it visually. Words are most definitely serving as signs, and provide identification and distinction. Although the tag line is too, fundamentally simple, it is distinct in its meaning. "Just Do It" means don’t think, don’t ask, don’t talk about it, don't regret it, just do it. The visual displays alongside this motto coincide with this notion. Sports figures and general athletes are depicted as having supreme athletic prowess, at the top of their game. "It appeals to the desire to be free, independent, overcoming all obstacles and social and physical inhibitions and limitations– and one can see how this appeals to the athlete or athlete to be, if not to everyone." Just Do It: Nike Advertising as Public Art
Print Advertisements: Real Women
One of the most effective brand elements is the use of print advertisements. These advertisements not only function as a sales tool, but at their core, they serve a rhetorical purpose, to persuade us. Nike embodies this function in the use of their “real women” advertisements. Real Women Ads These advertisements showcase what seem to be real women and highlight a specific part of their body. According to USAToday.com, the ads show “a mix of pro athlete models and real women appear in ads with shots of their legs, butt, hips or arms. The fit women are unapologetic about what they call their ‘big butt’ or ‘thunder thighs.’” Spokesperson for Nike, Caren Bell, comments that, “The ads try to illustrate that 'not all body types are created equally. To be a woman athlete, fit and strong doesn't mean you have to be sample size."
However, these images embody what Scott A. Lukas, Ph.D, refers to as “no object” advertisements. Here women are denied agency, the women are objectified and their identity is concealed. The Nike “real women” ads show only isolated body parts, never revealing to the viewer the woman’s whole body. John Berger explains in his book, "Ways of Seeing" (1972) that men are the spectators and the women are the objects – or the things that are made desirable. Berger simplifies this by stating, "men act and women appear" (47). In the Nike "real women" ads, the unidentified women expresses the perceptions that she has about herself. These Nike ads play on women's insecurities, yet displays them in a way that empowers the female. These ads go against the grain and are rhetorical in the sense that they act as persuasive liberation. While the format of the ads are not new, the way that the text changes the meaning of the ads is a significant feature of the Nike "Real Women" ads.
In addition, Berger explains how words are able to change the meaning of a particular image. "It is hard to define exactly how the words have changed the image but undoubtedly they have. The Image now illustrates the sentence" (28). The Nike ads would certainly be different if the words were absent from the ad. Without the words we see only a disjointed body, that has no identity. The words work to tell a story and explain the woman's highlighted body part. The words in the ad are persuasive in that they attempt to get the audience to sympathize with the woman's feelings and provide a context, which is based on our culture, that is needed in understanding the advertisements in their entirety.
Nike Web site
Creating a Web site is another form of branding. Nike's Web site creates a sense of cohesion where everything relates and everything flows together. This is a site that is also simplistic and subtle when presenting its argument. Nike has created an interactive Web site. Visitors can view the site and click on images of interest. By clicking on the image, it brings it to the middle of the screen and allows you to play a video that explains the image. So, what exactly is rhetorical?
The Nike Web site creators are effectively promoting its product which essentially is the main purpose, but that's just the surface. Digging deeper, it becomes apparent that Nike has attempted to create a narrative representation, as defined in Carolyn Handa's "Visual Rhetoric in a Digital World." The site attempts to tell a story about the different aspects of this brand, essentially saying that there is something for everyone. There are horizontal vectors that show the time line for the videos that the website includes with its images. So, now let's take a look at the effective and ineffective ways that Nike presents its argument through its website.
Nike creates a website with effective forms of branding. This a Web site that is offered in several different languages allowing for Nike to promote its product all over the world. For this website to be effective it is important that it create a positive affect with everyone who visits or views the website. The site gives the Nike product a status of superiority. This Web site is simplistic but has a futuristic look to it, which demonstrates that not only does it intend to continue to be great for years to come, but that it is coinciding with change over time. It is important to note that Nike brand Web site effectively creates a sense of identification. It is a site that one can quickly identify as Nike. This brings up the question of conformity. Nike does an excellent job of being original. It creates images and organizes the site that is directly specific to the Nike brand which makes it easier for consumers to quickly identify that this is in fact the place to go on the internet for all things Nike. The use of repetition is present throughout the Web site. The same format and color schemes are, for the most part, used throughout the entire website. This helps somewhat with navigating as well as attempts to eliminate some confusion. As for simply the way the website looks, Nike creates a Web site that is new, creative and different. It attempts to set itself apart from other competing brands. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, this website effectively promotes the Nike brand. It is encouraging exchange making it easy for consumers to purchase Nike products.
With all the elements of effective branding mentioned above, there are some areas that could be considered ineffective. When it comes to clarity the main problem becomes the inability to identify the message being presented. Visitors know that it is Nike's Web site, but it is uncertain as to what exactly the purpose of the site is. Also, not everyone is familiar with the Internet and how to navigate around websites, it may be difficult for viewers to effectively navigate around this site. Nike makes it easy to purchase items directly from the site, but any other information is a bit more difficult to find. After visiting the Nike's website, it becomes apparent that there is some jargon and concepts that are not easily understandable. The use of simple language is needed to help increase the Web site's effectiveness.
The retail branch of the Nike brand, NikeTown, is truly a rhetorical retail experience. “Niketown is neither a sporting goods supermarket nor simply a building; it is a city animated by the spirit of Nike (von Bories, p. 75).” The stores are filled with multimedia simulations, dramatic lighting, high ceilings and themed media, all creating a museum-like perspective on the Nike brand. The clear connection between NikeTown and museums allows us to interpret the rhetoric of NikeTown in a similar fashion to that of a museum. In “Framing the Fine Arts Through Rhetoric,” Marguerite Helmers asserts that the placement of objects in museum exhibits as well as the emphasis placed on certain exhibits over others “create a cultural and visual memory that establishes the value and meaning of objects (p. 78).” In NikeTown stores the placement of certain products, i.e. the museum wall of shoes that every NikeTown features, emphasizes those sneakers as central to the Nike brand identity.
In “Niketown Berlin: The city as a brand experience,” Friedrich von Bories describes the NikeTown stores as spaces of experience. He believes that in visiting a NikeTown store, consumers are able to experience brand identity. A visitor to a NikeTown store is no longer a consumer, but rather a citizen. Instead of having to purchase Nike products in a bid for brand identity, individuals must only visit the NikeTown store. “Niketown replaces Michael Jordan…The consumer’s attention is no longer directed toward a heroic figure, since he/she has become one him/herself (von Bories, p. 77).” Comparitive to interactive museum exhibitions, NikeTown, through the use of visual rhetorics such as ambient sound, interactive models and video displays, places the visitor within the scene, within the brand. “The effect was like being in a film. Spectators were scenic ‘extras,’ placed on a set, given props, and asked to react to the fictions as if it were all real (Helmers, p. 80).”
The NikeTown stores embody effective rhetorical branding in that the stores are capable of translating human thought and beliefs into a spatial experience for the consumer. All Nike collateral materials; ads, images, products, are encapsulated in the dynamic, technological space of NikeTown. “’The goal was to reflect the spirit of Nike and at the same time define the personality of the store.’(Lampert-Greaux, p. 37).”
Traditionally, branding is not considered rhetorical, but after further investigation we have been able to reveal the rhetorical nature of the branding movement. With branding, corporations are creating a visual argument that represents a specific image, lifestyle and essence. The visual elements that Nike uses in its branding strategy include logo, slogan, print advertisements, Web site and retail stores. Each branding medium uses distinct visually rhetorical tactics to convey its brand message. The visual rhetorical tactics used by Nike include semiotics, gender, narrative representation and spatial experience. The fusion of these rhetorical tactics create an effective Nike brand.
It is important to understand that there is a visual argument behind all brands. Using the elements of visual rhetoric to critically examine brands provides a different lens of understanding brand effectiveness. While we only analyzed the Nike brand, one should apply rhetorical theories to all brand identities so as to gain a broader understanding of corporate ideals.
Aldas, Volker. Icons of Design! The 20th Century. New York: Prestel, 2000.
Bedbury, Scott. A New Brand World. New York: Penguin Books, 2002.
Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. London: Penguin Books, 1972.
Czas Kultury. October 1999. Accessed on April 17 2007. <http://people.bu.edu/rfarnold/Public.htm>
Handa, Carolyn. "Visual Rhetoric in a Digital World." Massachusetts: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2004.
Helmers, Marguerite. “Framing the Fine Arts Through Rhetoric.” Defining Visual Rhetorics. Hill, Charles A. and Marguerite Helmers, eds. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2004. 63-86.
Henderson, P.W., Cote, J.A., Leong, S.M., & Schmitt, B. "Building strong brands in Asia: Selecting the visual components of image to maximize brand strength." International Journal of Research in Marketing April 2003: 1-35
Heskett, John. Toothpicks and Logos: Design in Everyday Life. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.
Howard, Theresa. "Real Women Have Curves, and Ads." USATODAY.COM 28 October 2005. Accessed on April 19 2007. <http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/557/09/>.
Kress, Gunther and Theo van Leeuwen. Reading Images: The Grammar of Visual Design. New York: Routledge, 1996.
Lukas, Scott A., Ph.D. "The Gendered Ads Project." Accessed on April 17 2007. <http://www.ltcconline.net/lukas/gender/pages/nosubject.htm>.
Lampert-Greaux, Ellen. "Shoe Business: New York’s NikeTown Redefines the Retail Experience.” TCI: Theatre Crafts International March 1997, Volume 31, Issue 3: 36-40.
Lury, Celia. Brands: The Logos of the Global Economy. Routledge, 2004.
Ryan, William and Theodore Conover. Graphic Communications Today. New York: Thomson Delmar Learning, 2004.
Trenholm, Sarah. Thinking Through Communication. Pearson. New York, 2005.
Von Bories, Friedrich. “Niketown Berlin: The city as a brand experience.” Advances in Art, Urban Features. 2003, Volume 3: 75-86.