My art school was in Bedford Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, just about the only footwear I ever saw the local cool kids wear was Converse All Stars.
They were iconic, Converse were THE basketball sneaker.
Years later, around 1984, Nike decided it wanted to enter the basketball market.
But Nike had built a reputation as a running shoe, it wasn’t fashionable for kids who were into basketball to be seen wearing Nikes.
Also, the fashionable sports clothing amongst kids at that time was Adidas, lots of the rappers were wearing track bottoms and tops with the famous three stripes down the side.
So Nike were third in the market: Converse had basketball, Adidas had street fashion.
Nike decided to put fashion and basketball together.
They put all their money behind the youngest, hottest player in basketball, they even named their shoe after him: Air Jordan.
But the smartest thing they did was to make the shoe in red and black.
All basketball shoes had to be mainly white, that was NBA rules, shoes had to be 51% white.
But Nike did something no one else even thought to do, they asked the question:
“What happens if we break the rule?”
No one had asked that before, they all just meekly obeyed the rule.
But Nike found out that if they broke the rule they’d have to pay a $5,000 fine.
Nike couldn’t believe it: “Are you kidding, you mean we get our shoes on Michael Jordan for the entire 48 minutes of the game, we look totally different from every other shoe out there, everyone watching on TV will see our shoes, and it’s only going to cost us $5,000?”
Looked at in those terms, it was the media bargain of the century.
So Michael Jordan wore the shoes and commentators were outraged, Nike paid the fine, and the next game they prepared to do the same.
Nike publicised the controversy as much as possible, feeding stories to the media, how long would the NBA put up with it?
Thilo Kunkel, associate professor at Philadelphia’s Temple University, said: “Fans were looking to see if he would wear the forbidden shoes in a game.
Cameras were on his sneakers, and the nation was talking about the Air Jordans.
Without the threat of a fine, there is no controversy.
So it was the best money invested by Nike.”
The NBA were forced to ban the black and red Air Jordan shoes; immediately, Nike ran a TV commercial.
It opens on a shot slowly panning down Michael Jordan as he flips a basketball back-and-forth, and pans down to his shoes.
The VO says: “On Oct. 15, Nike created a revolutionary new basketball shoe.
But then the NBA threw them out of the game.
Fortunately, the NBA can’t keep you from wearing them.
Air Jordans. From Nike.”
So Nike and Michael Jordan became rebels, non-conformists being pushed around by the establishment and, if you were a non-conformist, these were your shoes.
By manoeuvring the NBA into banning the shoes, Nike got them to do its advertising for it.
Suddenly Air Jordans were not only cool, they were the outlaw shoes.
Rappers had to be seen wearing them in their videos: Notorious B.I.G., Ice Cube, Jay Z, Kanye West.
And guess which shoes all the cool kids everywhere had to be wearing.
Within 2 months Nike had sold $70 million of shoes and the brand just kept growing.
By 2022, one year’s total revenue for Air Jordan was over $5.1 billion.
In 2003, Nike bought Converse, the shoes that had owned basketball.
All that came from asking the question: “What aren’t we allowed to do – let’s do that.”