Today I got a tour of Nike – in Beaverton, Oregon (near Portland). It’s quite the place. They have lakes and sports clubs and restaurants for their employees, Japanese gardens for contemplation, tennis courts, running tracks and swimming pools for exercise, as well as a regulation sized soccer field right in the middle of the artfully constructed rolling hills of this vast wooded campus. In the seemingly unending outdoor parking lot, we parked right next to a spot that is permanently reserved for Michael Jordan (he wasn’t there). Being in the Nike campus is a little like being in a dream world. You can tell that the employees all feel very well taken care of – I suspect the company has extremely high job retention.

There is also a huge company store where employees (and some of us visitors) can buy anything Nike offers at far below retail prices. Walking around this giant emporium, I was not surprised to notice that the enormous array of items on sale – shoes and socks and footballs (both American and European) and jackets and golf clubs and boxers and sweatshirts and tennis rackets and just about anything else sports-related that you can imagine – had exactly one thing in common: They all displayed the famous Nike swoosh symbol. Now, it’s important to understand that Nike doesn’t actually make most of this stuff (although in one of the more secretive buildings on campus they do some impressive technical development) – they have people in China to actually make the shoes. So what exactly is going on here?

I think the answer lies precisely in this sense one gets, while walking around this campus, of being in the midst of a lovely dream. What Nike offers their customers is indeed a dream – the dream of being like Tiger Woods, or Mia Hamm, or Lance Armstrong. It’s a good dream, one that gets kids to exercise, to learn self-mastery, to try to be the best they can be And of course it’s also a business, a phenomenally successful business. Every time you buy something at a Nike store your body becomes a highly visible sales platform for the Nike brand. There is an endless spiral of positive reinforcement between the brand, the customers who wear it, and the sports stars who are handsomely paid to lend their illustrious names and faces to the entire endeavor.

It’s not about making clothes – an activity that is outsourced to other parts of the world where labor costs are far lower. Rather, it’s about making money by giving people a way to define themselves, to strive to become a more ideal version of themselves, through identification with their cultural heroes.

There are worse ways to make a living.

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