How did the world’s biggest brands get to where they are today?

Part 1: Is Nike still Nike without Michael Jordan?

There’s a moment in the new movie AIR which tracks the fortunes of Nike as it goes from just another company making running shoes to becoming one of the world’s most recognisable brands. What the company goes through is a complete re-thinking of what athlete sponsorship means and this is perfectly encapsulated in a line from the movie: ‘A shoe is just a shoe until someone steps into it.’

That someone, of course, was Michael Jordan.

So in this new series from Silx, we will break down not just some of the world’s greatest brands, but also look at whether their dominance is down to strategy and careful planning – or just good fortune and a single decision that could easily have gone another way. And where better to start this exploration than with the shoe giant.

Understanding brand

In an interview with The Futur, brand guru Marty Neumeier says that, ‘A brand is not a logo … a brand is not a product … a brand is not a promise.’ So what is it? According to Neumeier it’s a ‘customer’s gut feeling about a product, service, or company.’

Seth Godin puts it this way: ‘A brand is the set of expectations, memories, stories and relationships that, taken together, account for a consumer’s decision to choose one product or service over another.’

The key word here is story.

The superstar association

So how does Nike fit in with this thinking around brand outlined by Neumeier and Godin?

Signing the greatest basketball player of all time to your shoe brand was a mixture of planning, risk taking, and good fortune. The Nike team bet their entire basketball division on one single player. If Jordan had sustained a career-ending injury – not uncommon in basketball, particularly when a talented college player starts playing in the NBA – things may have been different. In that version of reality, with no transformative star associated with their brand, Nike may well have continued to trail behind their rivals Adidas and Converse.

But Jordan won six NBA championships and the rest his history.

But if that’s the whole story, why are Jordan products still selling well even to consumers who were born after Jordan’s retirement from the league?

Emotion is the key

Let’s start here.

Jordan sold a lot of sneakers. But he also attracted talent to the brand – not only other great basketball players, but people behind the scenes who could take the direction Nike was going in, and boost it to another level entirely.

One of those people was Greg Hoffman. Already in love with Nike as a kid, with Jordan posters on the walls of his college dorm, Hoffman would later join the company and work his way up to Chief Marketing Officer. Not part of the company when Sonny Vaccaro and CEO Phil Knight originally brought Jordan into the Nike ecosystem, Hoffman was able to harness that already-established Jordan magic and spread it across all of the company’s output.

Hoffman mentions that even before joining the company, their commercials ‘hooked me on an emotional level with this incredible brand.’ He then took that and ran with it.

So what exactly did he do? The clue is in the title of Hoffman’s autobiography ‘Emotion by design’. It’s thinking deeply about how customers feel about your brand and how to create an emotion in them when they see a piece of your content. Which is why so much of the marketing that Nike puts out there doesn’t even show a product, focusing instead on the athlete themselves.

And while the customer may not share the outstanding athleticism, Hoffman looked for a common denominator between the Nike athlete and the regular consumer to create a connection.

So a commercial staring Serena Williams is as much about family, about her personal struggle, as it is about hitting a ball at 100mph. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick wasn’t even playing in the NFL when Nike created a commercial around him, positioning themselves alongside a key social issue and an activist-athlete – with no product in site.

Much of this can be traced back to the famous Michael Jordan commercial that covers the number of shots he missed over his career. That even someone with incredible talent fails regularly. This is something all audiences can relate to.

Hoffman told that ‘Nike’s presence in the world and in culture grew and truly transcended sport,’ adding that the company, ‘has always been a brand of risk-takers and defied the conventional ways you tell stories.’

Can one company’s branding be replicated elsewhere?

It’s all too common for marketers to hear Nike used as an example. ‘Let’s do something like them!’ But clearly it’s not that simple. So many things needed to fall into place perfectly for the company we see today to be the market-leading giant that it is. But here’s what we can take away: the power of telling stories. True, the stories that many businesses want to tell may not, on the surface, be as compelling as those of world-renowned athletes.

However, there are stories everywhere if you dig deep enough. If you get down to that human level – just as Nike does with so many of its stars. It’s finding that human aspect of your product or service, that universal theme, and communicating it to your audience. Tell them a story, and let them become part of your narrative.

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written by

Kris Evans Creative and Editorial Director, Silx