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AIR: The story of a shoe (and film) that teaches us so much about Branding

By: Gabriel Troiano

Director Ben Affleck's recently-released film “Air,” inspired us greatly, and tells the story of “Air Jordan,” the Nike shoe designed for the greatest basketball player of all time, Michael Jordan. In this article, I took advantage of the momentum of the film and mentioned several points that it made us think about, bringing learnings to the Branding world and lessons that we should all take to our professional and personal lives.

“You will be remembered forever. You are Michael Jordan”

Those who saw the film will remember this scene where Sonny Vaccaro, played by Matt Damon, gives a speech on the day the Air Jordan sneakers are presented to Michael Jordan and his parents, Deloris and James Jordan. Vaccaro's passion is felt in every word of the speech. I even got goosebumps when I saw it for the first time. And that's what makes Vaccaro's relationship with the shoe and Nike so powerful–his passion for the product and the company is unquestionable, it's almost palpable. So much so that, throughout the film, regardless of obstacles and difficulties, the businessman remains obstinate in achieving his goals of creating a sneaker that represents Michael Jordan in his full form.

In Branding, the same attitude is valid. We need to have passion, believe in the projects and products we work with. We need to have confidence, determination and dedication to develop strong and memorable brands. That same passion that we saw from Vaccaro takes us further, it is contagious and ends up spreading to other people. There's nothing more powerful than looking deep into someone's eyes and feeling that obsession with an idea or insight. It is from this feeling that great minds blossom. I remember another scene in the film where Matt Damon reviews Michael Jordan's move that inspired him to create the concept of the shoe for the athlete. I invite everyone to look into the actor's eyes and imagine Vaccaro in this situation. No one can deny his fascination. Just thinking about it makes us inspired!

“A shoe is just a shoe until someone steps on it”

This is another phrase from the film that moved me. Absolutely genius. There are multiple repercussions of this in our world of Branding. Have you ever stopped to think how much one person or Branding project can leverage a product or brand? We are not talking about Branding and celebrities as a deterministic trait for success, but rather the power these two have in building a potent brand that communicates with confidence and ownership.

Air Jordan only became Air Jordan when Michael Jordan decided to sign a contract with Nike and use the product in his games. His energy, determination and drive is what transformed the shoe from a simple set of fabrics and colors into a symbol of victory and overcoming obstacles. In other words, without Jordan, the shoe would have been just another sports piece, without much prominence and discernibility. Think about how many cases there are of this presence of a key person or figure that transforms the way a brand is seen. When writing this, I think of George Clooney, for example, who is the manifestation of Nespresso's values and beliefs, all his charm and charisma that is carried over to our experience when drinking a coffee from the brand.

And of course, Branding can indeed breathe new life into products and develop them beyond the surface. At TroianoBranding, we have a method called Naming Track, which follows the same process of the sentence–a name, in the beginning, is just a word, but little by little, through Branding and communication work, it takes shape, it is born, blossoms, and becomes a brand. I quote here another sentence from the film in relation to this process: “For the shoe to have meaning, Michael needs to create meaning in the shoe.” And folks, we can't deny it, this really happened in its greatest splendor.

“We need you in these shoes. Not so that you have meaning in your life, but so that we have meaning in ours.”

One more of these to put in your rooms. When I heard that phrase, I was thinking about how much we, who work with Branding, are privileged beings for being able to carry out work that not only impacts companies, but people, individuals who feel and think like us. It's all about people, as we say. Great examples of this are our works with Aegea or the Avon Institute, which the reader can investigate in depth on our website.

But the phrase in the film and in Nike's history has a much greater impact that we manage to rescue, many times, when we work to excavate the Purpose of companies and businesses. What the film makes us see more clearly is that when we do these projects, we come into contact with brands, insights and ideas that feed our thirst for life, our desire to wake up in the morning to carry out our workdays. Finding a Purpose, regardless of the context, is something very powerful, which inspires us to reflect on the most basic but most important motivations of us human beings. It's getting in touch with what unites us, what nourishes us. And the work doesn't end when we're done with the project–every company or manifestation of the brand stemming from that checkpoint has a positive impact on us, like Michael Jordan and his continued use of the Air Jordan. Seeing the athlete fly, seeing him break barriers and challenge seemingly impossible limits for us mortals is what inspired the professionals within Nike, what made them rejoice and get up in the morning with pride and passion. For those who were able to follow Michael Jordan live, because unfortunately I was very young and I simply don't remember his career, you know what I'm talking about. It's like seeing magic right before your eyes.

“The illusion is that the point of arrival is the destination. The act itself is the destination.”

Precipitation. It is one of the great enemies for Branding professionals. We see many brands rushing, prematurely changing their strategies without the patience to wait for their initiatives to mature. Folks, there is no way to generate value overnight! And that line, spoken by Ben Affleck, who plays Nike founder and CEO Philip Knight, represents just that. Our obsession with the finish line often ends up trampling all our other efforts, which unfortunately go down the drain. We prioritize the bottom line, we exchange critical thinking for frantic action, when in fact, we should think about the strategic process as a whole, like the work and the destination in itself. It may seem like a strange concept, but the film and the creation of Michael Jordan's shoes teach us exactly that. Even with the pressure of delivering a final product to the athlete and their family in a short amount of time, Nike valued every moment of the journey, from the most mundane to the most powerful and memorable. And that's why they ended up dominating the sports market, even today. To bring you back to basketball, I really like an NBA player named Joel Embiid, and he, calmly and serenely, says this in his interviews: “Trust the process.” Only then will we evolve, only then will we get out of the automatic.

“You are remembered for the rules you break.”

Finally, I decided to share this sentence because, like the others, it is very powerful and true. The rules we break, which Nike broke by creating a shoe that went against NBA regulations because of its mostly red design, are often the fruit of a great insight that has the strength and boldness to challenge the norms of the societies we live in. It's no secret, in order to change the rules and standards, we must first be willing to challenge them. Nike is obviously a great example of this, and we who work with Branding are also fascinated by the influx of new theories and ideas that go against what many people think.

Instigating, debating, disagreeing, all of this is also part of Branding. Of course, following the rules is important for a more peaceful and productive society, but the trick is knowing when and which rules to break. This seemingly disruptive act, when done carefully (but without planning!), can become one of our greatest allies. Mark this topic of discussion in your next meetings!

If you are a branding professional, businessman or woman, sports fan or even film buff, Air is worth watching. It's a business class, as well as a beautiful tribute to the great Michael Jordan. I will never forget his legacy. And you, do you still remember his games and championships? Just watching the film trailer made me want to buy an Air Jordan!


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