Miller: Building a brand, representing greatness
PRESIDENT, JORDAN BRAND
Larry Miller helped launch the Jordan Brand 20 years ago. Running an ever-changing line between fashion and function, it has become Nike’s second-largest brand — one which elite athletes aspire to be included as endorsers. Inside his office on Nike’s Beaverton, Ore., campus, Miller spoke with SportsBusiness Journal staff writer Terry Lefton about the finer points of building a label, establishing brand equity, and where arguably the top luxury sports performance apparel brand is heading.
■ I remember when people here used to refer to fashion as “the F word.” Now, especially with Jordan Brand, there’s a greater level of comfort in combining function with fashion, isn’t there?
MILLER: From an industry perceptive, there’s been a movement toward including entertainers as brand pillars, in addition to athletes. Performance is still what we’re about and what [the] Nike brand is about, but we’ve moved to a place where we blend style and fashion. Consumers are telling us they are just as tapped into fashion, art and entertainment as they are to sports, so we have to be there with them.
"We like to think that we could go into any sport and represent greatness and achievement. It's really a matter of focus and business objectives," Miller.
Courtesy of: NIKE
MILLER: Football for us was kind of unexpected, but people got it quickly. It’s about exposure and extending beyond basketball, showing we’re a lifestyle brand, too. Michigan set that tone and it was a loud message that we weren’t just basketball. We did Michigan cleats, jerseys, coaches wear and fan gear, and we sold more [Michigan] product that first weekend of the football season than they’d sold the entire previous season. … There will be more college football for us, but it has to be the right schools and conferences. We’ll be selective.
■ The question I always get from my friends is how involved Michael really is?
MILLER: There are weeks I talk to him every day and weeks I don’t talk to him at all, but believe me, he’s still extremely involved, down to product development and review, marketing decisions and quarterly business reviews. He’s heavily involved. That’s what makes it different and something no one else can point to. Having him makes us authentic.
■ What makes an athlete right for the Jordan Brand?
MILLER: We get calls all the time on behalf of athletes in every sport, even hockey and auto racing. Michael is still our guiding star, and then it’s how we fit other guys in — how they function on and off the field of play. We look for dedication and work ethic. The underlying concept is unleashing the best in everyone — not just athletes, but everyone.
It’s still amazing to me how much the brand has caught on to an entire generation of consumers who, for the most part, never saw Michael Jordan play. We’ve kept the brand story fresh by adding athletes like Russell Westbrook and Chris Paul.
We like to think that we could go into any sport and represent greatness and achievement. It’s really a matter of focus and business objectives. We’ve got boxers wearing Jordan product when they fight, but we haven’t brought a lot of that product to market yet. In that particular case, it’s less of a business opportunity and more of a branding opportunity.
■ So Jordan Brand is to Nike as Lexus is to Toyota?
MILLER: It goes back to our origins. Back when we started, we were changing the formula, which was: Build some incredibly cool shoes, support it with some cool advertising with Spike Lee or Bugs Bunny, and Michael wears the shoes through the season into the playoffs. With his retirement, there was concern that he wouldn’t be on court anymore, so how much would that matter? … We wanted to build something sustainable, and in the years since, we’ve done OK (laughs).
■ Sales of retro athletic shoes have exploded. How does a brand as young as Jordan deal with that?
MILLER: That has been a challenge. We addressed that by doing things like marrying the Air Jordan 1 with the Air Jordan XXXI, which told multiple stories. Retros are a great part of our business, but really we want to be driving new products and demonstrating new technology — creating the retros of the future.
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Designed to extend it beyond basketball, Jordan Brand has branched into football.
MILLER: We’re doing four categories: sportswear, kids, training and performance basketball. The plan is to continue to build on training and kids, along with women. More women and girls have been getting into Jordan, which is a big opportunity. Lots of women love our brand and we’re working on ways to show that love back to them.
I don’t see us going into a lot of other categories. We say no to a lot of ideas.
■ What’s your footwear/apparel mix and what could it be?
MILLER: Roughly between 80/20 percent to 85/15 [percent] footwear. What that means is that apparel is a huge opportunity and I think we’ll see good growth there. If that can get to 60/40 or 65/35, that would be amazing for us.
■ You left for five years to be president of the Portland Trail Blazers. What were the most noticeable changes when you returned?
MILLER: Size was one of the biggest things. We’d grown enormously. Category management by sport was in full effect; it had just started when I left.
From a Jordan perspective, we had lost a little bit of touch with our consumer, but I feel like we got that back now. Our consumers are more complex now and they are changing more quickly than ever, but I feel like we’ve got a good handle on them. They are consuming some form of media, it seems, 24/7. So we need to continue to figure out how to connect with them where they live — and obviously that has changed drastically.
We also got exceptionally more global. We are now growing at a much faster rate outside of North America.
■ If you are still making new MJ shoes this long after his retirement, how long can that continue?
MILLER: The plan is to make a new Air Jordan every year. If [Converse] Chuck Taylors can be around for 100 years, why can’t we?
There’s a story we tell around here about someone telling Phil Knight as a Mercedes rolled by that there was a brand that had been around since the 1920s. It’s the same thing — building something authentic enough that it will continue to connect. We’ve always had a maniacal focus on understanding our consumers and trying to be as close to them as we can be. That’s how you stay authentic and relevant.