The question posed in the headline doesn't have a simple answer, but it still needs to be asked. For the past week, and especially yesterday when the Kanye West x adidas partnership was officially confirmed, the Three Stripes owned the sneaker conversation. At 11:22 a.m. yesterday, adidas welcomed "one of the most influential cultural icons of this generation, Kanye West." It was as close to second fiddle as Nike has found itself in some time.
Then, just over nine hours later, Drake started teasing off-white OVO Jordans on his Instagram. And today, just five days after West shook things up by flaming on Sway's Shade 45 radio show that Jordans are only popular because he and his manager Don C wear them, Jordan Brand announced that they have signed Drake. It was a perfect chess move for Jordan, countering Kanye's attack on the name that the Jordan Brand carries; it was also a brilliant tactical move for Drake, who over the past 12 months has established himself as West's main competition. This isn’t as much about the deals, which could be enormously different in scope, as it is about the personalities. Sign, counter-sign.
Aside from the ongoing Kanye/Drake game of one-upmanship (yes, they had dinner at the Kardashians, but that means very little), this is just the latest example of how powerful brands think the celebrity co-sign is. And when we say celebrity co-sign, we're not counting athletes. Athletes have to wear technical sneakers and be sure companies are taking enormous steps year after year to marry fashion with function. But the fact of the matter is LeBron can't ball in Visvims, and Chris Paul can't cross over dudes over in the Balenciaga Arena. As important as fashion is to the brands and players alike, function has to come first. Flipping priorities means looking at a different kind of endorser.
Maybe the long sought-after “next Jordan” isn’t even a basketball player.
Aligning your brand with celebrities who have a following because of their artistry is nothing new, beginning with Run DMC and adidas back in 1986. But finding that perfect person to carry the legacy of your brand—which Jordan has been trying to do for the past decade—is easier said than done. (Dwyane Wade was supposed to be that guy; he ended up leaving for Li-Ning after just three years.) Who best pushes the brand forward, and how? It's part of the age-old argument that sneakerheads talk about every day: What moves the needle more, sneakers that look good off the court, or sneakers that we can wear to play ball in? It's the reason you see every other person wearing a Jordan III on the street, but not many on-court players lacing them up every night. (And why the Air Jordan XX8 is seen on the court, but not the street.) The only person to ever marry the two in a way that cracked the code flawlessly was Michael Jordan, and since then no one has come close. For years, Jordan (Brand) has sought to replicate (Michael) Jordan’s influence through other athletes, and maybe it’s time to try something different. Maybe the long sought-after “next Jordan” isn’t even a basketball player.
Does Jordan Brand think Drake is the person who has the talent and charisma (and a strong enough following) to drive consumers to buy his sneakers despite the fact that he can't dunk a basketball? Obviously. Hey, the Raptors think he can transcend genres. And while Jordan aligning itself with Drake isn't as much of a sure shot as the Kanye adidas partnership might be, it’s more of a sure shot than aligning with yet another athlete, because the brand never has to worry about a rapper getting hurt, or playing in a small market for a terrible team (and Aubrey doesn't seem like the type to drop a date rape verse). In the niche world of "sneaker culture," Drake's always kind of been an is-he-or-is-he-not a true sneakerhead (yes, just writing that sounds a bit nerdy) so it will be interesting to see the reception upcoming collaborations receive. But it’s not like he’s an untested rookie.
Does Jordan Brand think Drake is the person who has the talent and charisma (and a strong enough following) that regardless of whether he can dunk a basketball or not, that consumers will want to buy his sneakers?
Again, the concept isn’t new. Currently there are more than 10 rappers signed to sneaker deals across Reebok, Puma, Converse, adidas and now Jordan. Swizz Beatz and Rick Ross in the past years have been the biggest signees, mostly because they have been the most in-your-face about their partnerships. Do you even remember that Wiz Khalifa signed to Converse in March? Snoop Dogg to adidas? The results for a lot of musician/sneaker team-ups have been hit or miss. Run DMC set things off, Jay Z and 50 sold a shitload of sneakers for Reebok in the early 2000s, but what about the rest? Master P’s Converse deal is best known as a Lloyd Banks punchline. Even Pharrell and Reebok couldn’t make it work.
But Drake and Kanye are different. These are two guys at the very top of their game, even if the game isn’t basketball. The pressure for these partnerships to succeed is at an all-time high, and with Drake and Kanye, everything that releases with their respective names attached will come under extra scrutiny. Which is how it should be. And considering the creative powers that both of them have (just look at the stage designs on their current tours), maybe in the end this will simply mean better product for all of us. Let's hope.
Written by Joe La Puma (@jlapuma)