The Mastermind Behind the Air Jordan Empire
TAP: As a U.S. Manager of Public Relations and, eventually, Jordan Brand Manager, what exactly was your job? What was your working routine?
Patton: Whenever we dropped a new sneaker, commercial or whatever, I had to create the awareness surrounding it. Whether it was an interview or a press release with media about the new Air Jordans, I had to spread the word. I had to let people know, “here’s a picture of the shoe that’s hitting the streets over the holidays,” then I had to shoot the picture over to “Slam” Magazine and have them write a story on it, which emphasized the new commercial featuring Michael Jordan. I would have the media come behind the scenes and make sure they were able to interview Michael, et cetera.
When there was controversy, I was the spokesperson. When kids were killing each other over a pair of Jordans and it was featured on “Nightline” and BET’s “Teen Summit,” I had to handle it. So I was working the brand from all angles because I could relate to the audience. I was not just a corporate spokesperson making excuses. I had an authentic sensibility and supported the community to which I spoke.
In terms of footwear and the Jordan brand, I did the typical thing and made sure all the athletes were wearing them. But I made sure that we started sending product to the hip-hop artists like NAS, A Tribe Called Quest, KRS One and several others. Then I took it a step further and looked within the community to see who had the greatest influence in the youth market. It was the barbers! For example, when we came out with a new Air Jordan I was going to certain markets in L.A., Chicago and New York and I would make sure the barbers had the new Jordans first. They would have them months before they were even released. Being a product of urban culture, I knew that in that market, people wanted to have things first and they wanted things to be exclusive. In many respects, the barbershop is the epicenter of urban culture, and is an intergenerational place where male bonding is inevitable. So I knew that they had influence on not only the younger kids, but also the older folks who still played ball on the weekends and had an affinity for the Nike brand. Having an understanding of what was relevant and knowing the touch points for the market segment led me to an opportunity to be the Marketing Director. So I ended up engineering and launching the official Jordan brand in ‘97.
TAP: Even today, Jordans are still rather trendy to young kids on and off the courts. What do you think it is about a pair of Air Jordans that made them so popular then and now?
Patton: What’s interesting about the Jordan brand, in particular, is that people weren’t buying them to wear on the court. The Air Jordan was a movement within Nike. Believe it or not, so many people at Nike didn’t think Jordan could sell shoes once he stopped playing basketball. What I understood was that it was an iconic product that was as much connected to lifestyle as much as it was a performance shoe. There’s a premium that was associated with the shoe. Products with a brand premium are always going to last through the long term like Mercedes, if you will. It’s the notion of the remix. We applied the same concept to a sneaker. It was: let’s take a classic, remix it a little bit and make it contemporary. But it is that basic understanding of consumer culture that you really need to make these things happen.
TAP: Now eventually you left Nike to start your own company, can you tell us about your marketing firm, The Mastermind Group?
After I left Nike I started my company TMG in 2002. I wanted to create an agency that was focused on the urban market but bringing the right dimension to it and the proper understanding of it – as well as the focus of brand management consulting. I didn’t want to limit it to advertising or marketing or P.R., I wanted to have a firm that essentially could provide all of those things to our clients. There are different segments that are within the urban market and I wanted people to know that it’s not such a monolithic audience. I wanted people to know that it was more than just getting Snoop to say “fo-shizzle” about your brand. I was about finding the full dimension of the audience and discovering distinct ways to get them to experience different brands and products.
TAP: What inspired you to write the book “Under the Influence”?
Patton: Because so much is being created, folks within the culture, oftentimes, don’t stop to acknowledge the weight or the gravity behind the fact that things become disposable. Music, to a large degree, is what I’m referring to here. You have an artist that’s in and then they’re out and then people begin to wonder what’s next and who’s next. There’s a lot of that which goes on within this culture and it constantly comes back to ‘what’s next?’ I don’t think we’ve taken the time to acknowledge the full gravity of the impact we’ve made on pop, consumer culture and really the fabric of this country.
So I was compelled to chronicle the influence this generation has had on pop culture, the sports industry and branding itself. It has been a very significant window of time from the late eighties until now. We’ve seen major strides and I thought it was the appropriate time. My story is very unique in terms of possibilities and I wanted to be the narrator, if you will, to communicate and explain what was really happening on a much broader marketing level. To me, it’s a story that needs to be told so that there would be a full understanding and appreciation for the generation who, for the most part, came from very humble beginnings and are now using their creativity to change pop consumer culture and building entrepreneurship within it. Another reason why I wrote the book is because I think the next business generation has to realize the magnitude of the opportunity potential that they have at their disposal to go out and say, “let’s build that machine.“
We have all the parts so let’s just go ahead and build it.” Sort of like a blueprint. I’m a “Gen. Xer” so when I was coming up, my parents were into breaking “the glass ceiling” and being the first black president of some big corporation and the next generation pretty much said, “skip, that. I’m just going to go and be the president of my own corporation. Never mind if I don’t have the infrastructure or have properly planned the business, I just know that I don’t want to spend my life working for someone else and making someone else rich. I can make it happen.” With time, I think we’ll start to see a whole lot more of this taking place.