The Mastermind Behind the Air Jordan Empire
by Keya Carter
Anybody in their late 20s and early 30s more than likely remembers the catchphrase and commercials with an Air Jordan sneaker-clad Spike Lee touting in disbelief, “It’s the shoes. It’s got to be the shoes!” Meet the guerilla marketing genius behind the ever-prevalent Jordan brand, Erin O. Patton. From behind the scenes, Patton was a trailblazer in the fusion of urban niche marketing and pop culture and paved the way for Shaq to “have your back” on behalf of Comcast today.
In his new book, “Under the Influence: Tracing the Hip-Hop Generation’s Impact on Brands, Sports & Pop Culture”, Patton uses his experience as the Jordan brand marketing director for Nike and as CEO of his brand marketing and management firm, The Mastermind Group, to discuss how consumer demands, particularly within the urban segment, have shaped the core of pop-culture today. And that’s certainly not a one way street. Here, Patton talks to TAP about his rise through the advertising and marketing ranks, why Air Jordans will continue to sell and how barbers represent important conduits for urban marketing. Examine the engine behind the working machine, as it were, called “ Air Jordan.”
TAP: For starters, can you tell me about your marketing and branding experience?
Patton: I grew up being a part of the hip-hop generation in the inner-city of Pittsburgh where the music, lifestyle and culture permeated the times. I came of age in the late eighties and early nineties, when hip-hop music was becoming more than just a sound but a conduit for self-expression and a means for brand identification – adopting certain brands and certain styles, particularly within footwear and apparel. For instance, the Nike Air Jordan or the Adidas or other brands at that time that became relevant like Fila or the Kangol hat and L.L, [pause] I could go on forever. So I was shaped by the music as a means to express myself. Not just the brand and products that we chose but there was also an awareness of current events from groups like Public Enemy and A Tribe Called Quest that helped shape our mindset. So when I moved into corporate America, I brought a sense of understanding of that market segment because I was part of it.
I went to Northwestern and after graduating I immediately started working at Burrell Advertising which, at the time, was the premier African-American advertising agency in Chicago. We had clients like Proctor & Gamble and Sprite. Now with a brand like Sprite, which was very much focused on the youth market, I was able to inject into their marketing strategy and creative process how the hip-hop audience and, more importantly, the hip-hop culture and lifestyle could be leveraged from a marketing standpoint.
For example, Sprite’s tagline was “Obey Your Thirst” and that, to me, is the essence of this generation. Be true to yourself. Be distinctive and have your own style and flavor. There was a range of artists who were bringing their own creative style to the music and lifestyle at the time. It was natural to marry that particular brand with hip-hop culture. We had artists like Kid N Play, who were also very unique, so it was strategic, it wasn’t just about tapping into the growing phenomenon called hip-hop, it was about making it fit and positioning the hip-hop culture into the core brand values. That’s really when I found my niche because I was able to translate the hip-hop phenomena into a marketing opportunity for corporate America to hone in on this emerging audience. And to do it in a way that was authentic and relevant to the culture.
TAP: So you didn’t just land a job at Nike fresh out of undergrad?
Patton: Right. I was on the agency side at Burrell and then I went over to Edelman PR to gain some experience in mainstream marketing. With Edelman I was able to go to Microsoft and other clients and tell them, “hey you’re missing a huge opportunity.” I gained experience coming out of Burrell but all we did was reach out to the African Americans and Hispanics. So going into an agency that focused on “mainstream markets,” presented opportunities. I was able to go into a meeting whether it was with a healthcare, technology or consumer package goods company and say, “ I see the mainstream but there’s a broader market segment out there! ” I was able to bridge some of the gap. A lot of my story is about recognizing windows of opportunity, timing and value creation.
TAP: When did you know that your career in marketing and branding had officially taken flight?
Patton: I’d say the early nineties, when hip-hop, as well as business and brands, were exploding across popular culture. In my book, I refer to artists and athletes of that time as software developers because they were designing the language, styles and brands. They were creating a killer application for this culture in terms of what’s the newest lingo, what’s the newest style, the newest artist or DJ? And that eventually would run on the mainframe or hardware, if you will, called corporate America, i.e. the record labels, T.V. networks and film houses. So we were creating the content or software to be distributed to the masses. I had that understanding but at the same time I knew how important education was and I was able to get the training necessary to crossover into corporate America and really define my niche and the audience I was after and also a part of. So from there I went to Nike and the rest is history.
TAP: Wait! You can’t stop there! You were the brand manager for the Nike Air Jordan when they first hit the streets. Let’s talk about that. How did that come together for you?
Patton: I got a call from an executive recruiter who asked if I would be interested in working for Nike. As I mentioned, I grew up in Pittsburgh, a sports crazy city, and sports is a part of my DNA so I jumped at the opportunity to go and interview with Nike for the position of U.S. Manager of Public Relations. I was at a point where I was working for the agency but I wanted to do something different. I wanted a change. I wanted more money. I wanted a lot of things. In the meantime, I had interviewed for a position with Kellogg’s and that job was looking attractive to me but I didn’t get it. It wasn’t meant for me, it wasn’t connected to my values in any way and they are serious about their cereal game up there! [Laughs] So if I had gotten that job with the cereal company, my story would be a lot different.