Most people who regularly lace up a running shoe, trainer or cleat know that Nike takes its name from the Ancient Greeks' winged goddess of victory. That was an apt inspiration for a company that at the time, 1971, was transitioning from being an importer of Japanese running shoes in to a maker of its own.
Out went the name that Phil Knight and Bill Bowerman had traded under since founding their company in the mid-1960s, Blue Ribbon Sports. In came, along with a new corporate name, what would become arguably one of the two most iconic brand logos in sports, the Swoosh.
Phil Knight, then an associate professor of accounting at Portland State University, paid Carolyn Davidson $35 for her design. Davidson was a student graphic artist with whom he had fallen into conversation by chance in a campus hallway.
"Well, I don't love it, but maybe it will grow on me," Knight famously said on first seeing the logo — and as the deadline loomed for printing the boxes in which the first Nike shoes would be shipped. It grew on him sufficiently for him to give Davidson a surprise gold and diamond Swoosh ring some years later, along with a generous donation of the company's stock, in recognition of her work.
Now a sports goods and apparel giant, Nike has in recent years been battling it out with German rival Adidas for brand bragging rights in their multi-billion dollar world. But long before Nike was even a twinkle in Knight's eye, Adidas' archenemy was Puma. And that wasn't just a business rivalry. It was sibling rivalry.
Before World War II, the Dasslers, Rudolph and his younger brother Adolph, had run a successful sports-shoe manufacturing company, the Dassler Brothers Shoe Factory, based in the Bavarian town of Herzogenaurach. But the pair fell out as only warring brothers do — acrimoniously. In 1947, they decided to split the company and set up shop separately.
Not wanting to lose all the brand equity in the Dassler name, both tried to incorporate parts of it in the names of their new companies by using the first syllables of their given and family names. The elder brother went with Ruda; the younger one with Adidas. Quickly realizing that Adi had got the catchier contraction, Rudi morphed Ruda into Puma, a big cat that pointedly does not have any stripes.
Morphing names has an honorable tradition in sports-shoe branding. Brooks comes from Bruchs, the maiden name of the wife of the founder of the company, a Philadelphia maker of bathing shoes, Morris Goldenberg. Other companies such as Converse, Dunlop and the Japanese firm Mizuno get their names directly from their founders, even though none of the firms started as a sports-shoe makers.
Nor did New Balance, come to that. See the accompanying slideshow for that surprising story, and for those of Altra, ASICS, Hoka, K-Swiss, Reebok, and Skora. Those brand names draw from languages as diverse as Afrikaans, Latin, Maori, and Polish for their inspiration, and there is a story behind each one.
Which brings us to our 15th brand, Saucony, and the tricky question of how some of these shoe names are pronounced. The brand name is derived from a stream in Pennsylvania, but uses (the company dates back to 1898) an old Germanic spelling which would have been pronounced "sock-o-nee" rather than as it looks to modern eyes, "sow-cone-ee" or even "sauce-o-nee." Sacony Creek is the modern spelling of the watercourse, and the brand sounds like that.
Similarly, Adidas, you now know, should be pronounced "adi-das" rather than "a-deee-das." And as for Nike, scholars of Ancient Greek say the goddess rhymes with "bike", but Phil Knight's definitive ruling is that his company's name rhymes with "spiky."
We'll say no more. But do dive into the slideshow to discover the stories behind the names.
A contraction of Adolph “Adi” Dassler, one of two warring German siblings who divided up their Dassler Brothers Shoe Factory business after World War II. Brother Rudolph — after one false start — named his half, Puma.
Golden Harper made the first versions of his zero-drop shoes by popping traditional running shoes in a toaster oven so he could peel away the sole to extract the excess heel elevation. As he and his co-founders were distance runners, when they started their company in 2009 they created a portmanteau word from altered shoes for ultras.