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Lessons from Air Jordan the best product launch in history

Product launch marketing is super important for any business

Whatever product or service you are selling, product launch marketing will be a key part of your annual marketing plan. When you have new things to bring to market you need to make sure you do the best job possible.

I recently watched a documentary called ‘One Man and his Shoes‘. It’s the story of how Nike created and launched Air Jordan.

I’m a big fan of learning from the best, so this blog post looks at the story of Air Jordan and how Nike created one of the most successful product launches in history.

The background to the product launch

Before the product launch of Air Jordan, Nike wasn’t doing well. Things were very different back in 1984, they were on the slide. Falling behind Reebok, and were considering offers to sell out.

They needed to do something different to regain their market share and get back to being the number 1 sneaker company in the United States.

Find the product market fit

One thing Nike has always done well is to understand their audience. Initially, they were ‘runner’ focused, but then expanded out into other sports, specifically Tennis. This approach worked well for Nike initially, but it was limited. So they needed to do something different.

Research showed that the core audience that bought sneakers back in 1984 was 16 year old boys. So the strategy was to find a way to appeal to them, given the number one sport at the time for 16 year old boys was Basketball – that gave Nike a focus.

Create products that would appeal to 16 year old boys that love basketball.

Building the business strategy that led to Air Jordan.

At the time, Basketball was ruled by Converse. However, they didn’t really pay anything for the ‘brand ownership. They gave the NBA teams free shoes, and they wore them. That’s unheard of now, but was normal at the time.

Converse also had all the big players at the time, such as Larry Bird and Magic Johnson.

Taking a long term strategy for continued success

Nike needed an in. But since the doors to the current stars was locked, they took a longer term approach.

The strategy was to sponsor and support the upcoming basketball talent. That way that it would be easier for Nike sign them when they turned professional and reached the NBA.

They created a high school basketball programme known as the ‘ABCD Camp’. An elite programme for the best high school basketball players. The programme was headed up by Sonny Vaccaro.

This approach was highly successful.

Pretty much every major basketball star between 1984 and 2007 attended the ABCD camp. And without this Nike would not have ‘found’ Michael Jordan.

Developing the product strategy

At the time, it was thought that sports endorsements for players in team sports didn’t really work. Nike looked at this differently, and played to their strengths.

They were used to developing successful marketing based on individuals and wanted to apply the same strategy to a basketball player as they would to a tennis star. To build a product line around an individual star.

As well as running ABCD, his job was to get the college basketball teams to wear Nike. College coaches were paid to get their teams to wear Nike. During this time Vaccaro ‘spotted’ Michael Jordan as ‘the one’, and signed Jordan to his first ‘sneaker deal’ in 1984 – before he joined the NBA.

Two pivotal key things that Nike didn’t know at the time.

1) Jordan and his agent were looking for a shoe deal that would promote ‘him’ – as mentioned earlier a very different approach at the time. So they were strategically aligned without knowing it.

2) Michael Jordan went on to become the lead the Chicago Bulls, the greatest ever basketball team and along the way become regarded as the greatest ever player in the history of Basketball. Something that Nike could only have dreamed of at the time of signing Jordan.

Fact alert. Prior to signing with Nike, Jordan had never worn Nike – he’d worn Adidas.

Becoming remarkable

Although now regarded as the ‘best ever’ it might become a surprise that Michael Jordan wasn’t regarded as the best of his generation when he was selected to be ‘the one’ by Nike.

Jordan was the 3rd draft pick, which means he was regarded as the 3rd best player in his year group. He was picked by the Chicago Bulls – who at the time were a terrible team. (The way US Sports work is that the worst teams get the opportunity to pick the best new players every year in the draft).

It was a huge risk and a remarkable decision by Nike at the time (in the truest sense of the word).

Causing and embracing disruption

At the beginning of the 1984 NBA season, Michael Jordan took to the Basketball court wearing the Chicago Bulls uniform and matching black and red Nike Air Jordan basketball shoes.

They were banned by the NBA as they weren’t white. The NBA said they’d enforce a fine every time Jordan wore them.

Normal thinking at the time would have been. Well that’s us knackered then. But Nike embraced it, and it became a huge story.

Every time Jordan played in the shoes he was fined. And every time, Nike paid the fine – for them it was a cost of doing business.

As a result, the shoes became remarkable. Jordan became more and more well known – for being fined as well as his amazing flying dunks.

And people started to wonder – why did they really ban the shoes? Were they performance enhancing? Did wearing Air Jordans help make Jordan fly?

Building demand for the product launch

So in the first season in the NBA for the Chicago Bulls, Michael Jordan and his shoes became instantly infamous.

And the demand for the shoes grew.

The product launch wasn’t at the same time as Jordan started in the NBA, the first Air Jordan wasn’t available until months later.

It’s not clear if this was planned or just due to production issues. But by the time the Air Jordan v1 launched. Jordan was one of the hottest players in the league – winning the famous NBA All Star dunk competition and demand was at fever pitch.

So much so, that the NBA commissioner that banned them, David Stern, asked Nike for a pair for his son.

The follow up to the product launch

After the massive success of the first product, what do you do next? In this Nike were fearless and excelled. No difficult second album for the Air Jordan brand.

For the Air Jordan v2, they amended the design. No Nike swoosh. Defined the iconic ‘Jumpman‘ brand.

The price went up, and they sold out again. Another phenomenal product launch success.

The legacy following the Air Jordan product launch

Reinventing sports marketing

From the Air Jordan v3 onwards, Nike cemented the legacy of the Air Jordan brand through marketing. Creating TV adverts that disrupted how footwear was marketed, and in the process re-invented sports product marketing.

Step forward, Spike Lee and ‘the shoes’ Mars Blackmon campaign. Creating campaigns which are now regarded as some of the best product advertising ever made.

The first Mars Blackmon Air Jordan TV campaign. Nike. 1990.

Through these adverts, Air Jordan cemented it’s product market fit and became a cultural icon.

If you want to know more about those product launch campaigns, find out more about how the Mars Blackmon / Spike Lee Air Jordan product launch campaign came to be. That’s quite a story in itself.

The Chicago Bulls become the best ever NBA basketball team

Following the capture of Michael Jordan in 1984, the Chicago Bulls evolved into the best ever basketball team. It took them 6 years but once they started winning titles they didn’t stop. For more on that check out the amazing ‘The Last Dance’ documentary series on Netflix.

A new model for Product Launch marketing

The marketing campaign and the success of Jordan on the basketball court were both critical to the success of Nike’s product launch campaign.

Perhaps the Air Jordan brand could have been successful with just the best ever product launch marketing campaign or without Jordan winning titles.

But with both in place, it became an annual product launch event for Nike. And it’s been widely copied since, not just by sports companies (see Adidas / Yeezy) but also tech companies (early Apple iphone launches).

The business model behind the product launch

The funny thing about the agreement between Nike and Jordan is that they were already strategically aligned.

The first deal between Nike and Jordan was $500k (matching an offer from Adidas) + % of revenue from the product line sales. At the time it was one of the biggest deals in Basketball and Jordan hadn’t played a professional basketball game yet for the Chicago Bulls.

A huge risk for the number 3 in the draft. The safer bet would have been for the number 1 draft pick (Akeem Olajuwon)

The projections for the Air Jordan range over the initial 3-4 year period were based on sales of $3million. And everyone would have been delighted with that.

However, that was massively underestimated. In 1985 alone (Air Jordan v2) generated $130 million in sales.

Needless to say, the follow up deal with Nike in 1997 was a megadeal, a cost to Nike of $30 million upfront + %.

Key learning points from the Air Jordan story.

Clearly this hasn’t been a post about email marketing, it’s just about marketing. A story about building an iconic brand in the 1980’s and 1990’s.

It’s not about digital marketing, but the strategies hold true and you’ll find examples of all the key points in any marketing book.

So here are the key points of note from the Air Jordan story

Product Market Fit

A heck of a lot is written about finding product market fit. It’s incredibly important and also very hard to work out. It takes a lot of research but the payoff is huge.

For Nike, they were looking to appeal to 16 year old boys and based on their research the best way to reach them was through Basketball. That led them to the bet they made on Jordan.

Making the product remarkable

The NBA banning the Air Jordan shoe could have been a disaster. Nike embraced the controversy and turned it into marketing gold, not only for their products, but also elevated Michael Jordan into the spotlight.

Your product or service is unlikely to be banned, but consider how you could make it remarkable and generate some free press.

Building demand

Given that Jordan had established himself as one of the most exciting players in the league at the time that the Air Jordan v1 was launched it’s possible that the original $3-4 million sales projections would have been matched.

But the controversy of the ban created curiosity and demand beyond the anticipated audience of 16 year old boys. By the time they launched demand was way more than supply and the sneakers became ‘must-have’ ‘exclusive’ products.

A strategy that has been widely repeated since, and one that probably created the sneaker collection industry – by accident.

Learning and building from previous successes

Air Jordan was the first sports brand to turn each product launch into a cultural event. The main reason they were able to do that was to learn and build on previous successes. The first launch was so successful, supply could not meet the demand. That became the strategy, to limit supply and ensure the latest version became a ‘must-have’.

Nike turned the banned shoes controversy into an ‘anti-establishment’ marketing playbook that they’ve successfully repeated a 1000 times. Most recently with Colin Kaepernick and his ‘sacking’ by the NFL.

Look back at your previous product launch plans. Could you repeat what has worked in the past, and avoid the mistakes you’ve made in the future?

Creating your own product launch marketing plan

In the 2020’s, email is a key channel that in your digital marketing strategy, and a key component of any product launch marketing plan.

If you need help integrating email marketing into your marketing plan, we are standing by to help.

We’ve been successfully helping businesses grow through email marketing for years, so it’s a much lower risk than Nike took when they signed Jordan. Just fill out the form below, or schedule some time on our calendar.

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