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Brand Evolution: Air Jordan, Turning Sneakers into Legends 

Approx 6 min. read

Haelee Reis

February 29, 2024

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man with nike symbol on jersey and basketball

“I’m willing to bet my career on one guy!”

Convincing the team to invest in one player was challenging. Instead of spreading their budget across 3 or 4 players, Sonny Vaccaro persuaded them to focus on just one. Then he took it a step further. Nike didn't just invest in one player; they went ALL IN by creating a "sub" brand around that athlete. Some basketball fans might even say that Air Jordan is the main brand, not Nike. But that's a debate for another time. Despite the risks, they believed the potential rewards could be huge, and as we now know—they were right! Nike pioneered influencer marketing.

In our previous MUSE, we delved into the essence of branding, using the iconic sportswear giant Nike and the story of Air Jordan. We explored how a brand transcends its tangible products, becoming an inspiration and motivation for its global community. For instance, the "Just Do It" campaign, now the iconic slogan, was never just about selling shoes; it was a call for individuals to surpass their boundaries and achieve the “unachievable”. 

But what happens next? Once a brand has established its narrative and ethos, how does it continue to evolve while staying true to its core? In this sequel, we'll dig further into the intricate world of brand evolution. We'll uncover the strategies that ensure a brand doesn't just resonate at a particular moment in time but continues to be relevant, impactful, and cherished by its audience long into the future. The next chapter of a brand's journey: sustaining its legacy while charting new territories.

Becoming a Cultural Icon That Spans Generations 

“Rather than have the athlete wear our shoes, we create the shoe around the athlete.” 

And they did. They created one of the greatest basketball shoes ever made. They created a shoe that wasn’t just a product, it was the physical manifestation of an individual. Nike designed Air Jordan so their consumers could embody Michael Jordan.

michael jordan standing with arms wide with a nike symbol in the background

In 1986 alone,  Nike sold over $100M Air Jordan's.

Nike were trailblazers in building a brand that truly connects with people on many levels. They're not just about selling sneakers and sportswear; they've mastered the art of forging deep emotional bonds with their customers and their community. Nike's famous slogan "Just Do It" isn't just about sports; it's about empowerment, determination, and individuality, making it more than just a sports brand. Ask any basketball fan, Air Jordan aren't just shoes; they’re a cultural phenomenon blending sports, fashion, culture, history, and hip-hop. Nike teaches us the incredible impact of being more than just a product and evolving into a symbol of your community and what you both stand for. 

Air Movie: An Outcome of Outcomes

Air depicts the history-changing partnership between Michael Jordan and Nike, including the origin story of Air Jordan. The movie’s star-studded cast, including Ben Affleck (Director), Matt Damon, and Viola Davis, launched the movie into the spotlight, making a cool $90 million in box office sales worldwide since it launched in April 2023. 

Air is a fascinating tale of ambition, risk-taking, and the power of storytelling. Matt Damon plays Nike sports marketing executive Sonny Vaccaro, who was obsessed with signing Jordan. Vaccaro saw Jordan's undeniable talent and potential to be a global icon, and he was determined to make him the face of Nike. But it wasn't easy. As you can imagine, MJ had no shortage of ridiculous offers. Luckily, Michael’s mother Deloris was one of the original momagers and was involved in every aspect of her son’s career off-court. Deloris was hesitant to let Michael sign with any brand. She was worried they would exploit her son, and she didn't want him to become a sellout. So sweet little Mrs. Jordan negotiated one of the most lucrative partnerships in sporting history, and in turn, changed an age-old industry “norm”. They’re a family of history makers over there in the Jordan house.

Michael Jordan signed with Nike in 1984, and the rest is history. Air Jordan sneakers became a global phenomenon, and Jordan became one of the most famous athletes in the world. The movie Air is a celebration of Nike's foresight and the lasting power of building a brand. It's also a story about the importance of believing in someone's potential, even when everyone else thinks you’re crazy. Air is a must-see for any fan of business, sports, or storytelling. It's an inspiring story that will teach you valuable lessons about branding, marketing, and creating a movement. 

importance of knowing target audience and how to tell the bran story

Air has a lot of key takeaways for business and sales, but here are the top 4 us marketeers love:

  1. The importance of having a vision: Vaccaro had a clear vision for Nike and Jordan, and he never gave up on it.
  2. The importance of taking risks: Nike was willing to take a risk on a young player like Jordan, and it paid off handsomely.
  3. The importance of storytelling: Sonny was able to convince Jordan to sign with Nike by telling him a story about his future. If you haven't seen it… watch it here.
  4. The importance of building a brand: Nike has spent decades building a strong brand identity, and in turn created a loyal customer community that spans across the entire world.

Strategic Implications of the Silver Screen

Movies like Air and Barbie are global gifts handed to brands that amplify their status as cultural icons. The memes, gifs, reviews, viral posts, and trends all play an important part in each company's sales enablement, demand generation, and inbound marketing strategies. From the perfect product placement showcasing Air Jordan to the origin story fueling nostalgia in past consumers while capturing the attention of a new younger audience, Air is marketing excellence.

Authenticity is paramount for every brand. The Air movie wasn't just about product placement; it was about the story and ensuring that Nike's image aligned seamlessly with it. This alignment allowed Nike to authentically become a part of the movie, as opposed to feeling like an ad, resonating with viewers on a deeper level. Authenticity in brand narrative ensures that consumers don't feel like they're being sold to but rather invited to join a larger, meaningful story, creating a stronger and lasting brand-consumer connection.

How Your Brand Can Adopt an “Outcomes of Outcomes” Mindset

Become obsessed with your community (in a non-creepy way) and then show up for them with no strings attached. No sales pitch. Just there for them.

Here are 15 questions to help you dig deeper into your community and what drives them:

  1. What writers, authors, or experts do you follow?
  2. What social media accounts do you like? 
  3. How do you consume content online? 
  4. What brands do you love and why?
  5. What do they do in their free time? 
  6. What are your guilty pleasures?
  7. What stresses you out on a regular basis? 
  8. What do you worry about? What keeps you up at night?
  9. What big goals have you set yourself for the next 12 months?
  10. What is the one thing you wish you could change about our industry?
  11. If you could change one thing about the world, what would it be and why?
  12. What is the biggest risk you've ever taken, and what did you learn from it?
  13. If money wasn’t an object, what passion project would you pursue full-time?
  14. What do you wish companies/brands in this industry understood about you?
  15. What’s the “I can’t believe this exists” dream solution that you’d pay anything for?

Once you've answered these questions and identified your community's key values and motivations, then keep that at the forefront of every decision you make in your business. This is your north star. This is how you adopt an outcome of outcomes mindset driven by values.

pair of Nike Air Jordan shoes

In the case of Nike, their community, and their customers, wanted to be Michael Jordan. They didn’t want to be triathlon runners. They wanted to be the MVP, to feel like they could fly through the air and dunk like Jordan. They wanted to be superstars, rebels, unstoppable. So Nike gave them a shoe that personified exactly that.

2023 Worldwide footwear sales:

  • $29B - Nike
  • $13.1B - Adidas
  • $2.1B - Converse

Air Isn't About Michael Jordan At All

Air closes without a single scene showing Michael Jordan's face. Initially, it's an odd feeling having just given 112 minutes of your life to a biographical film and never seeing the main character's face. This is a movie about Michael Jordan, right?

Wrong. Air isn't about Michael Jordan at all, it's about the people who made Michael Jordan possible. It's about his inner circle. The people who believed in him and stood by him every step of the way. It's a movie about the importance of aligning values and knowing the impact of your decisions. Air is about having people in your corner you trust. People who only want the best for you and your team.

5 rules of partnering with great brands and hiring people to make the right teams

That's exactly what we do at EverWonder: partner with great brands and treat them like our own.

The outcomes of partnering with great brands:

↳ our team is motivated and invested 

↳ this increases their creativity and innovation

↳ increases connection, happiness, and team culture

↳ fuels our team to strive for better results for our company 

↳ creates better results for our clients and strengthens our partnership

Creating a Full Circle: Leveraging Outcomes of Outcomes

1985: Nike releases the first Air Jordan

1986: Nike sells over $100M Air Jordan's in the first year

2020: Nike releases a 10-part docu-series with Netflix

2022: Nike dominates the sneaker industry selling +$29B

2023: Air movie is released grossing $90M worldwide 

2023: Michael Jordan received $400M per year from Air Jordan sales

3 tiles with You can't stop us

Nike excels in creating interconnected posts and campaigns that reinforce their overarching message. Even without saying it, campaigns like Nike - You Can’t Stop Us and Nike - Find Your Greatness, echo “Just Do It”. Everything they put out there, be it commercials, social media content, events, or partnerships, all ties back to that core message of motivation, excellence, and pushing the boundaries. It ripples through each piece of content making the impact of each even more powerful.

michael jordan and boy standing frm a high diving board

When it comes to branding, Nike just do it. They understand that their actions and messages have a life of their own. It's not just about one campaign or one product; it's a continuous story that keeps inspiring and pushing us to be our best. Their strategy not only makes their brand shout louder but also keeps us pumped up and ready to conquer whatever life throws our way.

Stay tuned for part 3 of this series, Air Untold Story: Committed To The ‘Off-Screen’ Stars: Here we cover the untold story of Artist Equity: How Affleck & Damon revolutionized the industry with 'Air'. Dive in to see how they prioritized people over projects!

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