How Nike's Jordan Brand used celebrity collaborations to overcome a dip in the rankings and keep its reputation as the most iconic sneaker brand of all time. From the moment it signed Jordan to today, here's everything you need to know.
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- In 1984, Nike and NBA player Michael Jordan teamed up to launch one of the most iconic athlete-endorsed brands of all time: Jordan Brand.
- During the years Jordan was still playing professional basketball, the brand would release a new sneaker with every season, and it was the shoe Jordan would play in that year.
- Kids who grew up between 1984 and 2003 - the year Jordan left the NBA as a player for good - were a huge part of the success of the brand, according to a sneaker resale expert.
- Just as fashion trends come and go, the brand's sales dipped in 2014. Matt Cohen, a sneaker collector and the vice president of business development and strategy at GOAT Group, told Business Insider he believed this dip was due to a shift in fashion and a lack of consumer connection to Jordan, the man.
- Collaborations brought the brand back in late 2017, and it's still having a moment today.
- Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.
In 1984, Nike teamed up with Michael Jordan to launch Jordan Brand, a brand of shoes and athletic wear built around the player. At the time, Nike was a struggling brand selling running shoes with an idea to reinvent itself as a company for athletic stars.
ESPN reported that it wasn't so easy for the company to sign the then-budding NBA rookie. Nike reportedly offered Jordan $500,000 a year — in cash — for five years, hoping it could convince him to come on board.
Unfortunately for Nike, Jordan really wanted to work with Adidas. But, Adidas wasn't really an option for Jordan, as the company was undergoing a leadership shift at the time.
Converse, the shoe Jordan wore while playing for the University of North Carolina, wanted to sign Jordan, but it already had celebrity athlete endorsers in Magic Johnson and Larry Bird.
Converse made Jordan an offer, but he reportedly wasn't excited by it and didn't know where he would fit in the brand's already star-studded lineup.
Still, Jordan made one last attempt at his dream company, taking Nike's offer to Adidas and asking them to come "anywhere close" to the offer. It didn't work out with Adidas, and Jordan ultimately signed with Nike.
Nike wanted to build an entire line around Jordan's almost-superhuman ability to dunk, according to ESPN.
Once Jordan was on board, he began wearing the brand's shoes on the court. The first Nike shoe he wore in the NBA was the Nike Air Ship seen below.
The very first pair that he wore from his eponymous brand was called Air Jordan I. It caused a lot of commotion both on and off the court.
The shoes were originally released to stores in April 1985, and they were an instant hit. ESPN reported that Nike had sold $70 million worth of the shoes by May — just a month into the release — and that the Air Jordan brand had made Nike more than $100 million by the end of the year.
Nike cofounder Phil Knight called the success of Air Jordan I "the perfect combination of quality product, marketing, and athlete endorsement."
Athlete endorsement is a strategy that many companies have employed over the years. From burgers to cellphones, NBA players are great at selling just about anything.
Naturally, when one of the best players of all time — debatably the best athlete of all time — started selling sneakers, his fans wanted to get their hands on them.
When MJ first donned those Chicago Bulls-colored sneakers, the NBA had a rule about having all players in primarily white shoes.
Jordan was fined $5,000 for wearing the shoes, but instead of taking them off the court, Nike decided it was great exposure for the brand and chose to pay all of MJ's fines so he could continue to wear the shoes.
Fans saw Jordan do things his own way when it came to playing the game, but this was the first time they saw him make what was essentially a huge fashion statement, Matt Cohen, VP of business development and strategy at GOAT Group, told Business Insider.
Two longtime Air Jordan collectors and members of the sneaker community told Business Insider their love for the brand started when they were kids watching MJ play ball.
"The reason I like Jordans is because I like basketball and I like Michael Jordan," Hana Mandapat told me. The longtime collector used to visit family in Chicago, and after the Bulls won their first "three-peat" — the famous back-to-back-to-back championship — she started paying attention to Jordan, the man.
Mandapat started collecting Air Jordans in the year 2000, when she was a junior in high school. That was the year that Nike started to "retro" — or bring back into the market — certain Jordan styles. Her very first pair were the Air Jordan XIs.
Mandapat worked in retail — sneaker retail, of course — so she could put herself through college and afford to build up her Jordan collection. She said she became friends with other people in sneaker retail and they formed a sort of community, often calling on one another to help them get a new pair that was coming out.
Both Mandapat and Cohen identified the 2000s as an era of "everything throwback." Mandapat said the rise in popularity of Jordan retros as a lifestyle shoe "made sense" at the time because of the nostalgia factor.
"I was watching Michael Jordan play basketball and do things that had never been done before," Cohen said. "When you're a kid, everything is about nostalgia ... you want to dress like the athlete that you had looked up to."
"You're watching arguably the greatest player, if not the greatest athlete of all time, do things in his own way," Cohen said. "The way he played the game, the way he actually wore shoes on and off the court."
Cohen has been collecting shoes since the late '90s, when he was in his early teens. For him, "it was about always wanting that shoe."
Demand for each season's Jordans was high, Cohen said. "It was this historic thing every single year when that new pair of Jordans was coming out."
"I was skipping school to go to the local sneaker store where I grew up at seven in the morning. At that point it was great — you only had to get there three hours early, waiting for that shoe to release," he said. "It was about buying them, putting them on your feet, and walking into school and everyone saying 'How do you have that shoe?' ... I was two hours late, but that's neither here nor there, don't tell my teachers."
It's been ingrained in Cohen since he was a kid, and he's not the only one. This phenomenon gave Nike the opportunity to successfully employ the idea of a "retro."
When a style was retro'd, that meant it was an older style — likely from the days Jordan was playing ball — that was revived and re-released into the retail market.
Mandapat said that her very first pair of retro'd Air Jordan XIs were less than $100 at the time she bought them — she estimates around $80-$85 — since she's able to wear kids' sizes. In 2018, when the shoes retro'd again, she remembered the kids' sizes costing $180.
Both Mandapat and Cohen said that as kids, it wasn't so easy to get your hands on limited-release shoes.
"'Hey mom, I want to spend $120 on a pair of shoes,'" Cohen remembered. "And she was just like, 'Why can't you just get the $30 pair or the $60 pair?'" He said he would try and negotiate, even saying he'd use his birthday money.
Adults, on the other hand, are making their own money and spending it how they want. Cohen pointed out that at the time of original Jordan releases, sometimes there would be multiple colorways released at once, but he was only allowed to get one.
Now, he can get all the variations he wanted but wasn't allowed to get back then.
He told me he used to "hunt" for Jordans before he started really collecting them. He would go around buying as many pairs of the new release as he could, and then would resell them with a strategy to make a profit.
The Air Jordan III is Cohen's "favorite shoe of all time." It was the first shoe to feature the Jumpman logo on the tongue.
The shoe also happened to coincide with the start of Flight Club in 1999. The store was called Vintage Kicks at the time.
Flight Club was the original consignment store for rare and collectible sneakers. People like Cohen, who were buying with the intent to resell, would bring their shoes to the store and wait for them to sell. They mostly sold to everyone who couldn't — or just didn't want to — wait online or enter a raffle to be able to buy them from Nike itself.
Fans were all over the Jordan brand while MJ was still playing in the NBA, and they would often pay hiked-up prices at stores like Flight Club. But Cohen said the brand had cachet even after Jordan retired because tastemakers like Spike Lee ...
... and Brandy Norwood — just to name two — continued to show their support. Cohen said the shoes were often seen across all facets of pop culture at the time.
Alas, as time went on, there was a short decline for Nike's Jordan Brand. Cohen said the slump began around 2014, due to a combination of different factors.
Cohen's take is that it was largely caused by fashion's move away from basketball-influenced clothing. He said when he thinks about who the tastemakers were in 2014 and 2015, he noticed that they were wearing skinnier-legged pants. Take a look at Pharrell Williams on the MTV red carpet in 2002 ...
... versus his MTV red carpet look here in 2015. "These athletes and celebrities who were typically wearing Jordans with baggier style pants then started wearing skinnier, tight pants, and the traditional chunky sneaker fell out of vogue," Cohen said.
Cohen also noted that there were simply more players in the lifestyle sneaker game once 2014 rolled around. Fashion sites like Highsnobiety point out that the rise of Adidas suppressed whatever momentum Nike — and Jordan Brand in particular — had going for it.
Kanye West worked with Nike to release the Air Yeezy in 2009. He left the brand for Adidas in 2013, claiming that Nike wasn't interested in executing any of his design ideas.
"Jordan Brand lost its luster," Cohen said. "They experienced so much success for so many years that [Nike] didn't have to try that hard ... The product that they started putting out wasn't speaking to the OG community who watched Jordan play."
Cohen said that many of the people who the company gained as customers after Michael Jordan stopped playing actually don't even know who the NBA star is, so they weren't buying Jordans out of nostalgia. He said GOAT has seen massive growth in its 12- to 17-year-old customer demographic over the past few years.
"Their new idols are Stephen Curry," Cohen said. "When Steph came onto the scene, he became the number one best-selling basketball jersey ... and guess what else they were buying? Steph Curry shoes." Curry is an Under Armour-sponsored athlete.
After losing Kanye West and losing its ranking as a top sneaker seller to Adidas, the Jordan Brand decided to do something Cohen said it actively stayed away from previously: non-athlete collaborations.
"Collaborations are what people want now," Cohen said. So Jordan Brand is collaborating on iconic styles with some of the biggest names in fashion, like with its 2017 Retro High OG Friends and Family shoe with Colette in Paris.
Enter: designer collaborations like Virgil Abloh's Off-White in 2018 ...
... and celebrity collaborations like with Travis Scott this year,
Another great aspect of expensive collaborations is that they increase demand for older styles. "Guess what, if someone can't afford that $1,000 collaboration, they're going for the next-best thing," Cohen said. "So Nike deploys rarity [by introducing a collaboration on limited release], and if someone can't afford that pair, they still want something close."
Nike also took action toward getting its original Michael Jordan-loving clientele back by reviving new versions of retros that resonated with them. Cohen said that the Nike Air logo was originally on the back of early Jordan shoes because the Jumpman logo pictured here wasn't made right away.
Nike re-released the Air Jordan III — the first ever white cement, Cohen said — most recently in 2013 and called it the Retro '88. 1988 was the year the shoe was originally released. Instead of having the Jumpman logo on the heel plate, they replaced it with the Nike Air logo.
Cohen had the original retro Jordan IIIs in the white cement colorway from a few years prior, with the Jumpman logo on the back. He said it was imperative that he got his hands on "that Nike Air logo."
Nike started employing more strategies like this to get back in touch with the original collecting consumer.
Cohen said the company brings back the most iconic styles for Black Friday every year. "We've seen a re-release of the Jordan XI Space Jams, an iconic shoe that hadn't been released in 10 years." This was the shoe Michael Jordan wore in the 1996 film "Space Jam."
Mandapat is just one more collector who capitalizes on those re-releases. She said she now has every Air Jordan XI Concord retro since the original came out in 2000.
Additionally, Cohen said that as younger consumers learn more and more about who Michael Jordan is and what he meant for the sneaker community, they think Jordan Brand is what they should be buying.
This is largely perpetuated by today's tastemakers bringing the shoe back into their wardrobe. Tennis champion and fashion icon Serena Williams has been seen putting on her custom Air Jordan Is after a match ...
... and following Williams' 23rd Grand Slam, Jordan himself sent her two pairs of the shoes — one of which was bright pink, her favorite color.
Custom pairs have also been made for other public figures. The Chicago Cubs celebrated their World Series win in 2017 with then-President Barack Obama, gifting him a customized version of these Jordan IXs.
And Elon Musk wore a pair of custom Jordan Is made of black python skin and black hair on hide, according to DM Custom Sneakers.
One place where Cohen said Jordans never fell out of style is China. "Michael Jordan is still an incredible icon in China," he said. "Specifically, the Jordan I has always been a huge shoe in the Chinese sneaker market, and the Chinese consumer is such a huge part of global demand for sneakers."
With some reinvention and a new sense of storytelling, Jordan Brand clawed its way back into the game in 2018. Complex likened the comeback to the player himself, who "made his name by playing with a chip on his shoulder and having a laser focus on success." Jordan Brand has executed this comeback so well that it has worked its way back into monthly lists of the top-selling shoes in America.
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