WIEden & Kennedy

Michael Jordan was the most celebrated athlete of his time, and his Nike line of Air Jordan sneakers packed a merchandising wallop. The Jordan brand, a division of Nike, had also dabbled in on-court performance wear, but had never competed in the urban leisure apparel segment, a $2 billion global business with big hip-hop entrepreneurs Sean “Diddy” Combs and Jay-Z. What’s more, the Jordan brand had less than a million bucks to put itself on the map versus competitors spending many times that amount. But as everyone except minor league baseball pitchers know, you don’t want to bet against Michael Jordan.

A multidisciplinary team from Nike agency Wieden & Kennedy examined their core prospects, 16- to 20-year-old males with an urban mindset and hip-hop fashion aesthetic. “What came to the top was music,” says Tom Winner, Wieden broadcast buying director. “But how could we capitalize on that insight?” In addition, the agency wanted to keep Jordan a contemporary icon, even though some in this target were too young to have seen him play.

The answer was to connect the brand to rapper Common and current Jordan athletes Carmelo Anthony and Quentin Richardson of the NBA and Terrell Owens of the NFL, who are said to embody what Jordan stands for on and off the court. The agency approached Common—a Chicago Bulls ball boy in the MJ era—and together they created a video for his new song, Be. Says Kevin Porter, media director at the agency, “The song is really about Michael in some respects, though he’s not in the video. The lyrics are very positive and uplifting—Common is considered one of the best lyrical poets in hip hop. The video shows today’s athletes visiting Michael’s old neighborhood in Brooklyn, where he was born, as a way of contemporizing him for today’s audience.”

It was risky to peg a launch on placement of an unproduced music video, but once Wieden execs saw the footage, they knew it was a slam dunk. Media contacts opened the door to BET’s tastemaking 106 and Park music show. “We’ve worked with BET for years, so when we said this is something they’d really want on their air, they trusted us,” says Winner. The video’s premiere and Common’s appearance were unpaid, arranged by the brand folks. The video ran 13 weeks in the show’s top 10 and landed on the usual video download sites; its Jordan angle was picked up by Stephen A. Smith’s ESPN2 show and ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel, generating more free exposure.

In paid media, the agency used print vehicles “that are very core to our audience,” says Troy Valls, associate media director, “like Dime, a basketball lifestyle title, and Complex, a kind of urban version of Stuff. And we worked with Cornerstone, an urban events promotion company with lots of industry contacts, to produce a mix tape containing the video and interview segments.” The mix tape/video went to 10,000 trendsetters in music, fashion and entertainment. To demonstrate the Jordan brand’s seriousness to the trade, Wieden took a huge billboard opposite Magic, the apparel biz show in Las Vegas, and threw a glitzy party there.

The campaign helped the Jordan line to exceed expectations by far in last year’s back-to-school launch, generating more than 57 million impressions—equivalent to a national TV buy—plus another 43 million from other media pickup. The line achieved a spectacular 70 percent sell-through, outpacing Jordan’s sneaker business at the time.

“When you work at Nike, people think you have big budgets,” says Roman Vega, brand manager at Jordan, “but we really had to stretch our marketing dollars. Wieden was able to negotiate with publications for gatefold units and they got us cover stock for our ads, which helped our luxury image. But we knew a print campaign wasn’t going to be enough. We had to flip the script and create buzz and energy around our launch, and the music video was definitely the idea that put us over the top.”