Welcome to another instalment of the I Doff my Cap series, in which I identify and praise brand advertising campaigns that have impressed and inspired me personally but also impacted culture as we know it today.
Recently I discussed the World’s Most Interesting Man, the genius campaign delivered by Dos Equis. In case you missed it, you can read it in full here.
In this piece, I doff my cap to sporting giant, Nike. If we think about marketing today, there are very few plans that do not involve some sort of partnership, whether that’s a supply chain alliance or an influencer pairing. And, if one isn’t part of your strategy, you can probably name a fair few brands for which one is.
However, while such talent partnerships are commonplace today, they were much less so in 1984 – the year Nike changed its destiny by striking a deal with the upcoming NBA legend and soon-to-be celebrity brand behemoth, Michael Jordan.
I’ve always respected brands that aren’t afraid to take risks. Those that see an opportunity and commit to grasping it with complete confidence. In that sense, Nike were ahead of the game when it came to brand partnerships, which is exactly why I doff my cap.
Michael Jordan isn’t the only personality Nike has partnered with by any stretch. Over the years, we’ve seen them sign up some of the biggest names in sport and, arguably, popular culture. The list includes the likes of John McEnroe, Cristiano Ronaldo, Tiger Woods and Serena Williams, among many others. But none of them have been as significant as Jordan.
Shoot and score
We can say with confidence that the deal with Jordan ended up being iconic but the way it came about is a story worth telling. Jordan was determined to work with Adidas but, to Nike’s good fortune, due to the personal circumstances of its management team, the German sports brand were not in a position to offer him a deal.
Converse, whose footwear Jordan had already worn on court, also took a shot at securing the star but, ultimately, it was a lack of innovation and an already-crowded roster of ball-playing brand ambassadors, like Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, that lost them the deal.
Before the deal, Nike had its ups and downs. They had built their brand manufacturing and selling running shoes but aspired to reinvent itself as a broader sporting mark.
Jordan admits that, before putting pen to paper, he had never even put on a pair of Nikes. But the offer of $500,000 a year was too good to turn down, especially considering no other brand was prepared to offer anything in the same ballpark and none were paying any other athlete an amount so significant.
Nike clearly recognised the potential of the athlete and of a potential partnership but they could never have guaranteed its success. What happened next could have been a fairy-tale.
One of the biggest factors of the partnership’s success is the role it played in shaping the brand’s story. The deal came at a significant turning point for the business and at a time when Jordan’s career really took off winning the NBA’s Rookie of the Year the same season, and Nike was able to leverage his success to reposition and build their own brand.
During Jordan’s professional basketball career, the brand released a new Air Jordan sneaker every season for him to play in all year. As audiences watched the season and story play out, they were able to put themselves in his shoes (literally) and associate themselves with anything he did in them. This would become a central element of the narrative of both his career and of the brand.
Like any good story, the plot played out with conflict, drama, setbacks and success. Everything Jordan did was PR for the brand, most notably, when he first donned the Bulls-coloured shoes and contravened strict NBA rules requiring all players’ shoes to be primarily white. Nike saw the commotion this caused as great brand exposure and decided to pay every $5,000 fine he received for continuing to play in them.
The intertwined storyline led audiences to draw parallels between the star and the brand. His greatest of all-time title, athleticism, strength, bravery and “just do it” attitude reflected positively on the brand image and consequently, the two became synonymous. Audiences began to see Nike in the same light as they saw Jordan, and fortunately, this worked extremely well for them.
In the opening year, Nike predicted $3m – $5m in sales. The first shoe release in 1985, the iconic Air Jordan 1 in the red and black colourway, sold $70m in just a month. And, by the end of the year, the Jordan brand had made Nike over $100m.
As long as Jordan performed on the court and generated increased sales and brand engagement for Nike, he was fulfilling his side of the contract and had the guarantee of an extended deal. And every Jordan rebound or slam-dunk also became Nike’s.
It’s easy to attribute the success of the partnership to luck, as neither Nike nor Jordan could have written a story so perfect. Yet they did. There were clear strategic moves made by both parties but their seamless execution allowed them to write the playbook of brand partnerships.
The power of partnership
The sheer impact of Michael Jordan’s association with Nike highlights the importance of partnering with the right personality. Any deal needs to be strategic and targeted to create lasting impressions on the right cohort of consumers. But, if one of the partners’ reputation sustains damage, the others can easily also be impacted.
In the case of Nike, Jordan became its first lifetime partnership, so their trust in him needed to be strong. Both parties’ sense of brand, values and missions must align in the long-term for there to be continued success. If this is compromised, it could end up harming both of their images.
Nike have done notoriously well at partnering with the right people. Even when things go wrong, which they certainly have, its faith in its partners and bold displays of support for them tend to save the brand’s reputation.
Examples of this include Tiger Woods, whom they continued to back throughout his personal troubles and, more recently, support for Colin Kaepernick and his stance on racism. Whilst Jordan also had his fair share of ups and downs throughout his career, his branded shoe releases continue to be some of the most anticipated drops in the sneaker market, which demonstrates how well sustained partnerships can pay off.
The reason this worked effectively for Nike is because they recognised that Jordan, the person, was just as marketable as Jordan, the player. So, even after he retired, the partnership could continue. And whilst the career chapter may have closed, a new one could be opened, and the story would continue.
His legacy transcends the sport of basketball that played a role in creating the essence of the Jordan brand. Long after he retired from the game, the brand is still desirable as it has become part of popular culture. It is no longer just about a shoe. It is something people get emotional about and what Nike x Jordan created is a collectable, a statement and a cultural movement.
Every relationship has its ups and downs
Anyone lucky enough to have watched Jordan play in his prime will remember how emotional the journey was. There were countless trials, tribulations and triumphs and every single one of them thickened the plot. Audiences felt every bit of emotion and Nike were able to capture it and offer it to fans in physical form.
Because of this, the shoes have become collectors’ items and, in true Nike fashion, they were one of the first to really hit this market too. The limited edition designs take pride of place in any sneakerhead’s collection and the resale value of the shoes today only illustrates how desirable they remain.
It should be said that, although the Air Jordan brand was incredibly profitable in the years he was playing, it has since experienced some slumps. After a faltering 2015-2017, Nike could have taken the decision to drop the brand. They had other partnerships with more relevant athletes but, instead, they stood by Jordan and it paid off, opening yet another chapter in the story.
In 2018, the Jordan brand was back and bigger than ever and has since gone from strength to strength. This year, following the premiere of the Last Dance series on Netflix documenting the star’s career, the 2015 “Chicago” Air Jordan 1 retros in the same colourway as those he was seen wearing in the show, experienced a 50 per cent spike in their aftermarket price.
Brand partnerships have great potential. It’s another basic marketing formula: brand x talent = bigger than the sum of the parts. But the secret lies in the quality of the partnership. As much as both brands can be elevated by a good partnership, they flounder with a bad one. Nike x Jordan is one of the best examples of the former. The partnership truly transformed the marketing industry and, in particular, celebrity endorsements.
Having experienced the partnership in real-time as fan, the concept has always interested me and I have done more than just doff my cap to Nike and MJ. When we started Champions 18 years ago, our talent offering was inspired by all that we had learnt from their synergy. And, in more recent years, as brand-talent partnerships have taken off, our influencer offering is upheld by many of the same principles.
As someone once said, ‘what Nike did wasn’t Magic – it was Jordan’.