A logo can make people fall in love with a brand, make a company stand out from its competition, and make a company rich–in more ways than one, it turns out.
According to the Paradise Papers–a trove of leaked documents published today by the International Consortium for Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) that reveal how the world’s ultra-rich become richer by exploiting tax shelters–Nike has boosted profits by shifting the licensing rights to its trademarks, including the swoosh logo, to a Bermuda-based shell company. Clearly, the athletic brand’s slogan ought to be “Just tax shelter it.”
Nike, like other global companies, has taken advantage of being a multinational corporation. Its European headquarters is based in the Netherlands and in 2006 the Dutch government granted the brand a new tax deal that allowed it to open a subsidiary in Bermuda, called Nike International Ltd. This subsidiary owns Nike’s intangible design assets–like its logo and trademarks–for all markets outside of the United States. When a supplier wants to make merchandise, it pays this subsidiary licensing fees to use Nike’s logos and trademarks. Since the company is actually based in Bermuda, which is a tax-free country, it saves billions on revenue these licensing fees generate.
In the years following Nike’s 2006 tax arrangement, profits rose 55%. According to the Paradise Papers, “the flow of trademark royalties had helped Nike build a $6.6 billion pile of offshore profits by June 2014.”
The tax evasion plans go deeper still. In 2014, Nike made another strategic move by exploiting a Dutch tax law from 1830 called a “commanditaire vennootschap” (CV), or limited partnership, which lets multinational corporations skirt taxes in the Netherlands and abroad, too:
In effect, a CV that is owned by partners outside the Netherlands can be entirely stateless, and as a result taxless. Many U.S. multinationals, therefore, set up non-Dutch holding companies that agree to form Dutch CVs.
This is how it works: Under the Dutch law, profits made through a CV are regarded as if they were made by the partners. As such, these earnings have been made outside the Netherlands and cannot be taxed there. Other countries, meanwhile, see the picture differently. They see Dutch CVs as much like regular companies and regard the taxing rights as belonging to the Dutch.
In tax-avoidance circles, this confusion is much sought after and is known as a “hybrid mismatch.”
Thanks to its corporate restructuring, Nike’s tax global rate dropped from 34.9% in 2007 to 13.2% this year.
Nike isn’t the only design-driven brand to exploit Dutch tax loopholes. In the 1980s, the Swedish furniture brand Ikea established a complex network of holding companies and nonprofits to avoid paying taxes. One of them, Inter Ikea Systems BV, owns Ikea’s trademarks and is based in–you guessed it–the Netherlands. When the ICIJ took a closer look at the 500 largest publicly traded multinational companies in the United States, it discovered over 200 Dutch CV subsidiaries. Documents in the Paradise Papers revealed that Uber and Tesla have Dutch CVs, too. But when the ICIJ inquired about whether or not the CVs owned the rights to intangible property, the companies declined to comment.
The Paradise Papers reveal the true value intangible design holds for a company. In Nike’s case, having a logo that’s recognized around the world isn’t just about selling shoes and sweatshirts to consumers who want to identify with the brand; it enables the company to perform legal gymnastics in order to keep profits high. And to think: Nike paid only $35 to its logo designer, Carolyn Davidson. When she created the swoosh in 1971, she was at Portland State University. That’s the real steal in Nike’s logo saga, tax loopholes be damned.