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How Michael Jordan’s Brand Became Synonymous with Excellence?

It’s remarkable when you realize that Michael Jordan’s brand has become even stronger well over two decades since he played his last professional NBA game. In fact, a growing number of young urban men, women, boys, and girls who purchase Nike Air Jordan products today were born after he played his last game.

But it’s not just sneakers or basketball paraphernalia that are part of the Michael Jordan brand. He also has a series of restaurants, has been a spokesperson for a variety of products through the years, and has maintained an air of excellence surrounding all of it.

What’s most striking, though, is the simple fact that his brand, especially with Nike, almost didn’t come to pass. 

Where did Michael Jordan come from?

Considered by many to be the best professional basketball player in history, he didn’t start out with the fanfare he ultimately received. He didn’t make his high school’s varsity team as a sophomore, specifically because he was viewed as being too short, even at 5’11”.

He worked hard, made the varsity roster as a junior, and then went to the University of North Carolina where he was named ACC Freshman of the Year. He entered the NBA draft a year early in 1984, but ultimately graduated in 1986 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in geography.

He quickly became a fan favorite, even among opposing teams. Eventually, he would lead the Chicago Bulls to 6 NBA championships. But in 1984, when he was first drafted, the concept of the Air Jordan sneaker and even the design didn’t inspire Michael with any level of confidence.

He didn’t want anything to do with the design or the name, but his mother Deloris encouraged him to go into a meeting where he would receive, ultimately, a 25% royalty. At the time, not many in Nike’s upper echelon were convinced this was a good deal, either. It took a great deal of convincing that this unique branding would pay dividends down the road.

And it did.

What did he achieve?

Michael Jordan achieved what very few professional basketball players ever achieve: multiple championships. With the Chicago Bulls, he helped them win three straight championships before he retired, following the murder of his father.

He went on to play minor league baseball for two years, having some fun, but not excelling in any real level like he did as a basketball player.

He returned to the Chicago Bulls and won three more straight championships, earning him six straight championships in six years in the NBA.

How did Michael Jordan achieve such excellence?

To become the best basketball player, either of one’s generation or in the world, it doesn’t happen by accident. The same can be said about any unique branding for companies.

These factors don’t happen by accident. They don’t happen by chance. There is a powerful and poignant commercial — one of many — that Nike put out starring Michael Jordan during the height of his career.

In it, Michael narrates the commercial, talking about all of the shots he took and missed, the times he was entrusted with the game-winning shot and missed, the number of games he lost. He closes by saying, ‘I have failed over and over and over again in my life and that is why I succeed.’

It is an important reminder for anyone seeking excellence. The road to success and excellence is not paved with constant victories, celebrations, and wonderful moments. It is paved with mistakes and failures and missed opportunities.

Michael Jordan could not have achieved the level of excellence and success he did without those moments of failure.

But here’s perhaps one of the most important lessons we learn from Michael Jordan when it comes to unique branding: it’s about the hustle.

What does it mean to ‘hustle’?

For people like Michael Jordan and others who have achieved a level of excellence and success in their respective careers, it never happens by accident. And it most certainly does not happen overnight.

For someone to ‘hustle,’ it means they work hard. In many cases, they work harder than anyone else in their chosen career. Or, at least as hard as anyone else.

When Michael Jordan spoke in that Nike commercial about the game-winning shots he took and missed, while everyone else returned to the locker rooms, showered, changed, and went home or out to dinner at a fine restaurant with friends or family, Michael Jordan would return to the basketball court. He would practice that shot over and over and over.

He would analyze his mindset, his technique, what was going on with his legs, fatigue, distraction, and other factors that caused him to miss. Then, he would constantly practice it again and again.

In other words, while everyone else left, his hustle put him back out on the court, even after a grueling game, difficult season, or failed opportunity.

That is a powerful lesson in achieving and pursuing excellence. It’s about the hustle, putting in the extra time when everyone else goes home.

What is his brand legacy?

Today, the Michael Jordan brand is synonymous with excellence. Just about everyone in the world, wherever you go, knows about Michael Jordan. Even his nickname, MJ, is immediately associated with him and not anyone else.

Nike has signed on numerous top NBA basketball players through the years, but as they move through their career and eventually retire, so, too, does their particular brand.

Not Michael Jordan’s. Three Jordan brand shoes continue to remain in the top 10 selling market today. He has become ingrained not just in the basketball world as a leader, and not just in the sports world as somebody who achieved the epitome of excellence at the highest level, but throughout popular culture, too.

He starred in a couple of movies, mostly kids films, and his commercials were famous. George Belch, a professor with the marketing department at San Diego State University, noted about Michael Jordan that he is “kind of the epitome of cool in many ways.”

George Belch went on to add, “His influence just seems to go from one generation to the next.” His legacy, in other words, endures.

What we can learn from Jordan’s brand?

As an entrepreneur, you can learn a great deal from the Michael Jordan brand. First and foremost, keep in mind that incredibly powerful Nike commercial he did about failure. If you’ve never seen it, you can watch it here.

It’s easy to get caught up in this notion that the best basketball players, other athletes, business executives, entrepreneurs, or anyone else simply worked hard, practiced, and achieved excellence, but not that it’s ongoing.

That’s perhaps the most important lesson we all need to take away from the Jordan brand: that excellence doesn’t come by chance and it is not just built on the foundation of hard work, practice, and dedication.

It’s also built on the ongoing pursuit of it.

When it comes to unique branding, building a business, and achieving excellence, you must put all your effort into it, not just for the years you gain experience and knowledge and wisdom, but as you build and grow your enterprise.

Realize that you will be entrusted with that “game-winning shot” and will miss. You will lose over and over and over. You will fail over and over and over.

But that’s okay. The key, and perhaps the most valuable lesson we can gain from Michael Jordan’s hustle and brand, is what you do immediately afterward.

Do you hit the showers, get all cleaned up, and headed out with friends or family? Or do you head back out on the court, analyze what went wrong, and practice and practice and practice to try and get it right the next time?

Building a brand takes time. And it won’t be smooth sailing all the time. But that’s the thing. It’s not about luck, though that can play a role. It’s about perseverance.

Hitting the court when everyone else goes home.