Be the Michael Jordan of Marketing

By Tracy Saathoff
  • 06.01.20
  • 5 Min Read

It’s an interesting time to be in the marketing business. With the health crisis and uncertain consumer behavior, clients, contacts, friends and new connections regularly ask me what to do and how to weather the storm. While I look for marketing inspiration from nearly anywhere, I would have never expected to be inspired by ESPN’s Michael Jordan documentary, “The Last Dance.”

As someone who isn’t “into sports,” I don’t naturally take cues from professional athletes. But I was so struck by the insights number 23 used to guide his success and how closely they aligned with marketing that I felt compelled to connect the dots.

While it’s indisputable that MJ and his teammates were filled with pure, raw talent — which also helps in marketing — it was the approach Michael took that perfectly mirrors the hallmarks of successful advertising.

Michael Jordan winner



My favorite takeaway from the documentary is how simple and defined Michael was in understanding his goal when playing — to win. Whether he was coming to the league as a rookie or a senior player back from his brief time with the Chicago White Sox, Michael knew the goal was to win regardless of the stats, situation, or perceptions. Even if winning meant a lower spot in draft selections or changes in organizational strategy, he focused on the goal that mattered most, which he knew would ultimately be the tide that lifted all boats. And for anyone who didn’t see it the same way, he called them out and pushed them to get on the same page.

The same clarity and strictness are needed in marketing. It’s idealistic to want to drive awareness, reputation, social followers and sales all at the same time — but it’s not realistic. Instead, take a cue from MJ and think about what matters more than anything and what ultimately defines a win. Making it simple, clear-cut and non-negotiable as your plans grow and brands become more diverse with marketing needs. If you have a clear goal, all other things influenced by marketing outcomes should find success along the way.

Michael Jordan teamwork



If his goal was to win, Michael knew he had to put in the work to make it happen. That work was his sole focus. Whether it meant extra practice, pushing teammates, adopting the famed triangle offense, he was devoted to honing his craft in order to reach his goal. While there are criticisms for the methods Jordan used, each teammate knew his actions were in pursuit of the goal. It’s his work ethic, commitment to making himself better and leading by example that propelled him to success — not pure talent alone.

Marketing thrives on teamwork. And great teams need to be on the same page about what the target is and how we get there. Designers, writers, researchers and more contribute in their own ways to make a marketing plan successful. Our team continues to practice, refine, grow, learn, change and be committed to the outcome to create a series of marketing successes.

Space Jam



Goals don’t matter unless you’re going to be held accountable to make them happen. Jordan was confident in his own and his teammates’ abilities. He talks at length in the documentary about pulling his team up from times when they were down in the first half without hope of a win and he had to re-spark spirits or personally take responsibility for overcoming a tough half. If you want to win, you have to have high expectations and be committed to helping the team reach them.

In marketing, each piece of your plan needs to directly contribute to your chief goal. Is there a tactic you’re running because you feel like you “have to” or something you just “always do”? Don’t. Instead, make sure it’s helping you directly reach your goal and reaching expectations. If not, it may be time to cut it.

Has your message been the same for several years while sales are flat? Perhaps it’s time to launch new creative. Take a look at your marketing mix and ensure each “player” — tactic, media plan, message, channel, partner, etc. — is pulling its weight to help you reach your goal.

Michael Jordan bench talk



While it’s true that teams/organizations win championships, it’s also true that, as Jordan said, a game is directly influenced by the players on the court in that moment. There are a lot of moving parts that brands need to account for when building their campaigns, but stay focused on the game itself (your campaigns and marketing strategies) vs. the external things you can’t control in the environment around you. The shifts in the industry and politics are hard to ignore and can influence how you approach your marketing, but they shouldn’t become your strategy. Remember your goals, think about what you can offer in the market that’s different and build a strategy that is relevant to your brand’s needs vs. just countering competitors.

Relying on the marketing “players” also means that you have to invest in marketing. What started as strategies have to become real things. Concepts don’t win ADDY’s, insights alone don’t drive higher revenue and wireframes don’t build your audience. You have to invest in making the strategies real and turning them into actual campaigns, martech stacks, websites and ads so they can play the game to win vs. being cool plays on a chalkboard.

Michael Jordan Dunk



Was Jordan the hardest working man in sports? Probably. Or at least that’s how it’s portrayed in the documentary. I was exhausted just hearing about his commitment. Oftentimes he scored more points in a half than other players did in the entire game. It shows his drive and willingness to be personally responsible to make goals become reality.

When developing your next marketing campaign, make a commitment. Whether your budget is big or small doesn’t matter as much as your commitment and buy-in to see it through to the end. This doesn’t mean you should create a marketing strategy without changes or optimizations along the way. But rather, committing to seeing a strategy through and putting in the work on creative, photography, event planning, email strategy, website functionality, etc. to deliver a solid end product that will bring you returns.

As your organization re-emerges from the pandemic, it’s a great opportunity to revisit your marketing strategies and course-correct to drive toward a new definition of success. As you take a fresh look at how to re-emerge stronger, smarter and more strategic post-pandemic, start where MJ did — with clear goals, having a singular focus, setting expectations, focusing on the game and committing to following through. Those things in combination with the talent already on your team will enable you to build your own legacy of success.

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