Lessons From Nike: What We Can Learn From Air Jordan Marketing

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When Michael Jordan first laced up his custom Air Jordans in 1985, they got him into trouble. And not just slap on the wrist trouble, but $5,000 a game trouble – courtesy of the NBA Commissioner, David Stern. Back then, this was the majority of Jordan’s yearly salary, but that wasn’t about to stop him from lacing up his kicks.

Of course, if the Commissioner hadn’t eventually relented, Air Jordans may not have reached the stature they hold today as among the most popular shoes of all time, but Jordan and the Nike marketing team had to leverage a powerful media presence to change his mind. And that’s precisely what makes the brand relevant for marketers today. Nike more broadly, and Air Jordans specifically, have an impressive marketing record. Especially considering the fact that so many consumers complain of things like sciatica pain with every new shoe they try. Taking time to learn from their strategies is a smart move for marketing professionals in any sector.

Start Something New

One of the most powerful tools in marketing is the concept of new. Everyone wants to be the first to hit a new trend – which is exactly what Nike did with the Air Jordan. Before Air Jordans, players or teams might be sponsored by a brand, but the concept of signature shoes didn’t exist. Back then, everyone on a team wore the same shoes – that was the premise of the fine Jordan faced. He was breaking the team image.

For marketers, breaking with the traditions of your field is important if you want to stand out from the competition. Of course, you’ll need to strike on a change that works, and you may fail a few times at first. Nike paid all of Jordan’s fines for a while, which wasn’t exactly where they wanted their marketing money to go. Trying something new may cost you a little bit in the short term, but as Air Jordans prove, innovation can be profitable beyond your wildest dreams.

nike air jordans.
Nike Air Jordan shoes showing the Jumpman.

Logos Matter

Logos are an old school marketing approach – so old that you can trace them back to a time when many people couldn’t read and identified shops by pictorial signs. But logos have stuck around because they make products and brands recognizable, and because we’re able to interpret images more quickly than words. The sooner you associate a logo with a brand or product, the more quickly that item will take off.

This is exactly what happened with Air Jordans, which picked up their signature Jumpman in 1987. While the shoes were certainly popular before the logo, the Jumpman made them recognizable in a new way. The Air Jordan 10s, for example, feature the Jumpman on the sole, but in a game where athletes are constantly bounding and jumping, that logo still got plenty of exposure. One glimpse of that figure and buyers instantly knew that these otherwise nondescript sneakers were part of the legendary Air Jordan line.

Manage Negative Press

When marketers may take a big step forward with the goal of devising an innovative strategy or brands may develop a new product, they know that competitors are likely to come after them, trying to drag down their innovation. Nike has certainly dealt with its share of bad press around the Air Jordans, such as alleged deaths resulting from fights over sneakers, but how they bounce back is the real lesson.

When confronted with negative accounts from competitors, the team at Nike doubled down on the value of their product and stayed focused on their message. Trying to respond to all the negativity in the media will dilute your message, so don’t try to counter competitors’ messages at every turn. Minimize their presence in your message and you’ll also minimize their message to your audience. Make your product matter more than anything the competition can throw at you.

Pick a Public Face

What sets top marketers apart from the rest is that they listen to their customers and they stay on trend. By combining these insights with brand models and ambassadors – representatives of your brand in the world – marketers can reach the widest audience.

For Nike, Michael Jordan was the aspirational figure that powered the product, but you need to know your audience. Investment-savvy individuals don’t want banking advice from Steph Curry, but they do want those insights from Warren Buffett.

Digital marketing is always pushing the boundaries, so keep reinventing yourself. There have been 31 different styles of Air Jordans and they haven’t lost their edge. Search deep for the new, best version of your brand and you may be surprised by what ideas you find inside.

Melissa Thompson writes about a wide range of topics, always revealing interesting things we didn’t know before. She is a freelance producer for USA Today, and a contributor at Technorati. She lives in Utah with her 2 kids and husband. Melissa Thompson can be reached via LinkedIn or Twitter @melthompson88. Please follow and friend her on either site.