As Michael Jordan exits pro basketball-- without an "Air apparent" on his heels and with sales of basketball shoes in a slump the rules of athletic footwear advertising are about to change.
For the short term, experts expect that Jordan's retirement could boost Air Jordan shoe and clothing sales, which account for about $200 million of Nike's $800 million in worldwide annual sales of basketball shoes and apparel. Over time, the lack of the next great personality combined with a downward sales trend could be the chink in Nike's armor that competitors have been seeking.
Basketball shoe advertising has been a war of player personalities, with Nike and Jordan leading the battle in their award-winning ads from Wieden & Kennedy/Portland. W&K has been grooming Phoenix Suns' Charles Barkley, but pundits say Barkley, a skilled athlete, doesn't have Jordan's charisma and some of his comments to the press make him a gamble as a spokesperson. That, combined with factors like the move away from hoop shoes to trendier footwear, make new marketing strategies essential.
"The combination of Jordan retiring and Nike being overexposed makes Nike vulnerable to losing a lot of folks," said a former Nike executive who asked not to be identified. "Consumers want to be different and would go for another brand if there was something to catch their fancy. But it takes more than an unusual shoe. It takes a clever brand personality or ad campaign."
Industry experts are keeping a close eye on one footwear executive who may be waiting to upset Nike: Rob Strasser, new ceo at smaller Portland-based rival Adidas. Strasser is the former Nike employee who brought Jordan to Nike in 1985, saving the company from the wrath of Reebok. "If anybody can get the jump on Nike, it's Rob Strasser," said Al Hanson, a former Nike executive who worked with him. "He's brilliant at unique marketing ideas. I would think he's working 26 hours a day trying to come up with a way to take advantage of Jordan's retirement."
Strasser would not comment. John Russell, Nike management supervisor at W & K, admits that Jordan's departure may open the way for new footwear strategies, though he says the business is cyclical. "The basketball category itself may have cooled off a bit, but someone now just has to figure out how to generate some new basketball excitement, whether through a new product, athlete or way of selling."
Whether or not Jordan returns to the NBA, Nike director of advertising Scott Bedbury said that Nike will likely take advantage of the superstar to promote basketball in world markets where there is still growth opportunity. Air Jordan sales represent a mere 5% of the company's business. (Jordan sales account for $200 million of Nike's $3.9 billion worldwide.)
"Michael is capable of selling more than athletic shoes and beverages," Bedbury said. "The overall brand has greater potential than athletic shoes." Domestically, Jordan may get a lesser role promoting basketball while Nike expands his visibility with other lines and as a corporate spokesperson, Bedbury said.
Some observers point out that Jordan's retirement begs a number of interesting new scenarios for Nike and others. "I can just picture Michael in a pair of Nike hiking boots looking up a mountain and saying, 'I thought I was at the top,'" said Jennifer Groves, footwear analyst with Black & Co. Portland, Ore. "Or Michael going to watch Charles Barkley at the opera with his Cole Haans on."
Others observers say that using Jordan to promote other categories like golf, one of the superstar's favorite sports, isn't likely to be effective, spreading the athlete's image too thin.
The most optimistic marketing analysts believe Jordan has earned a place in Americana that will persist regardless of his future plans, and that Air Jordan may become a classic the way Converse's Chuck Taylor basketball shoe has survived for decades after the late sports great.
Copyright Adweek L.P. (1993)