From Swoosh to Swoon: Linguistic Analysis of Nike's Changing Image

Article excerpt

Our research models one way in which linguistic theory can be applied to the study of business communication. Specifically, we use linguistic theory to analyze how Nike's image is created through internal and external forms of communication. We find a parallel use of positive images in communication created by both Nike and the media from the early 1980s to the late 1990s and a divergence of images when Nike is accused of labor violations. Introducing language analysis challenges business students to assess carefully the structure of business communication in order to evaluate the reality behind the image.

Keywords: Corporate image, Nike, public relations, media coverage, discourse analysis, sociolinguistics, speech act


LINGUISTIC AND MARKETING concepts are useful tools in helping students understand how companies shape their image. By analyzing a company's various forms of communication through the lens of language manipulation, students develop a critical eye for business communications, an increased sensitivity to language, and greater inferencing skills. This article describes how we lead students through an analysis of corporate image creation at one company, Nike. In the analysis we look at both company-created communications and those produced by journalists about the company.

Applying Linguistic Analysis

As many researchers have shown, linguistic analysis is important to our understanding of business communication. Linguistics is the study of language structure, including semantics (word choice), syntax (grammatical structure), style (level of language formality), genre (language types, such as discussion, lecture, or interview), and figurative language use (metaphor, simile). In addition, linguistics investigates the way language is manipulated by rhetorical devices like slanting and obfuscation. While linguistic analysis has been applied to a variety of interactions such as doctor-patient (Coulthard & Ashby, 1975; Proia, 1998), teacher-student (Heath, 1998), lawyer-client (Labov, 1998), and employer-employee (Bilbow & Yeung, 1998), less work has been done on the interaction between corporations and their various constituents. One such researcher is Bell (1984), who looks at how a particular set of social conditions influences a speaker's linguistic choices. Business culture with its own set of social conditions also influences language choices used to communicate corporate messages.

A rigorous look at language choice in business communication is beneficial in the business curriculum. Business students should develop a sensitivity to linguistic elements as they encounter communication between companies and their multiple constituencies, both internal (employees) and external (customers and shareholders, among others) (Cheney & Christensen, 2001; Armstrong & Kotler, 2000). Linguistic sensitivity and inferencing skills will benefit students in understanding corporate culture, especially the way companies create images of themselves through their use of language.

Students can best prepare for a linguistic examination of business communication by reading discourse analysis relating to the structure of language (Brown & Yule, 1983); the connection between the culture of a group (community, family, company) and its language choices (Hymes, 1974); and the organization of larger units of language (Grice, 1975).

Analyzing Nike's Corporate Image

We selected Nike for our analysis because many of our students are part of the company's target audience and because there is an obvious contradiction between the company-created image as a revolutionary, socially responsible company and the media-created image as an exploiter of Asian workers (Stabile, 2000).

According to Bell's theory of audience design, speakers develop their style for a specific audience and take the audience into consideration when choosing linguistic variables, such as the switch from one language to another in bilingual situations, formal and informal style, word and syntactic choices, shifting of linguistic categories, discourse markers, pronouns, and speech acts (1984). …