6 brand lessons from Michael Jordan's The Last Dance
Platform13's Leila Fataar reflects on takeouts from docuseries smash.
The 1990s were, for me, one of the most influential periods of culture. Growing up mixed race in apartheid South Africa, black American culture of the 90s was the "dream", from the golden age of hip hop to the rise of sportswear as fashion, when sports such as basketball were much more popular than football.
The Last Dance is a runaway hit, seen not only as a sports documentary but as an important cultural series with multiple lessons for building brand awareness, equity and growth. According to ESPN, the docuseries averaged more than 5.6 million viewers per episode during its run and is pulling in nearly 13 million viewers an episode from on-demand viewing while on Netflix; the numbers hit 23.8 million at the last count.
Here are my main takeouts from the show.
Lesson 1: Diversity breeds success Michael Jordan is definitely the star of the series, with his basketball skills earning him the uncontested title of the GOAT. For me, coach Phil Jackson embodies contemporary leadership, truly understanding the roles of each team member, setting each up for success in their own way, matched to their own characteristics, and ensuring that the diverse mix of talent and personalities worked together to dominate the courts.
Lesson 2: Playing the long game at the speed of culture The early release on ESPN in the US and Netflix internationally engaged the core audience by filling a void for sports fans, as sports season was in effect cancelled, and sneakerheads. In a perfect stroke, the docuseries attracted a new and wide global audience at a time when everyone was home. Stories of resilience, perseverance and unseen footage served to entertain and uplift people while the world was feeling low. Nostalgia and commentary flooded people’s feeds through shared and earned media, driving further intrigue and interest from people who had no previous interest in either basketball or sneaker culture.
Lesson 3: Representation matters Culture is the stuff of life, a reflection of reality and a connector of communities. This experience has always underpinned my way of working and are the key pillars of the Platform13 manifesto. Jordan and the Chicago Bulls weren’t just a basketball team, they were a global phenomenon in an age without social media. In the 90s, for what felt like the first time, people who looked like us started to make massive impact across colour lines, cultures and generations. This was important to move things forward.
Lesson 4: Challenging convention for category leadership Even in the face of resistance from Jordan, the legendary partnership with Nike went ahead. This long-term investment by a brand in a then "emerging" sports star was forward-thinking – rather than using Jordan as merely an endorser, like Gatorade or McDonald's did, Nike quickly created an entire product line for him and the Jordan brand was born in the mid-80s. Identifying true cultural voices and collaborating with them in new and brave ways over a long period of time builds deep brand equity, fame and ultimately ongoing sales. Throughout that time, as with any brand, there are ups and downs in "relevance", but according to Forbes, the Jordan line does approximately $3bn in annual sales compared with Yeezy, which was expected to top $1.5bn in 2019.
Lesson 5: Cultural credibility for long-term value Jordan is a sports icon, a brand and a product. His long-term Nike partnership is a masterclass in cultural marketing – finding a unique intersection between brand, community and culture to occupy. The Air Jordan, like the Converse All Star, Vans Old Skool and Adidas Superstar or Stan Smith, is a badge of cultural legacy, especially for those of us who understand the back story and its impact on culture and community. The docuseries is re-energising for us and provides an opportunity to educate a new generation.
Together, Jordan and Nike transcended from sports into culture and entertainment, with moments such as the Spike Lee ad and endorsement from rappers and the music world, and became an iconic shoe with a living active icon. Post-retirement, the Jordan legacy continued into 2020 through meme culture, with style cues still present in luxury sportswear brands such as Fear of God, collaborations with Dior and cultural movers such as Ghetto Gastro and Melody Ehsani, plus the effervescent support of everyone from Jay-Z to Billie Eilish. Wearing Jordan product says something about you.
Lesson 6: Brand storytelling drives brand growth Authentic and compelling storytelling, delivered to the audience at the right time, in the right channel (Netflix during the pandemic) and on the right timeline (in this case, a weekly docuseries to drive excitement and conversation), will always drive hype around a product and can ultimately result in short-term sales. According to Complex, Jordan sales as a whole are up 40% compared with the previous month on StockX since the premiere. The company has also seen spikes in traffic of 68% on average to its Air Jordan pages every Sunday, coinciding with the release of new episodes.
The pandemic is a rare opportunity for future-thinking brands to captivate a switched-on audience by making cultural relevance a growth driver, creating impact for target audiences by working with cultural voices and building cultural leaders.
Leila Fataar is founder of Platform13