Founder's Blog

The branding of basketball shoes and music

Stephen Marbury was an NBA player from 1996-2009. He grew up playing basketball when Nike introduced the Air Jordan basketball shoe.

Like every kid his age, Marbury wanted a pair of Air Jordans desperately, but his mother made it clear that she was not going to spend $100 on a pair of shoes. He went through childhood playing (and winning) basketball games in the shoes his family could afford.

In 2006, he was offered the opportunity to endorse a brand of basketball shoes that were the same quality as expensive Nike’s, but cost $14.99. He jumped at the chance.

He loved the idea that he could circle back to what he saw as a real problem — the excessive cost and unnecessary struggles that kids faced to own good basketball shoes.

The Starbury (Marbury’s nickname) shoe was introduced to a skeptical market. Everyone kept questioning the quality of the shoe. It must be inferior, it costs so much less.

He didn’t anticipate a fundamental rule of human nature — price signals quality.

A similar signal is used in music. Oftentimes, when I hear musicians discussed, the phrase ‘classically-trained’ is used — even if they are jazz, folk or rock players. That description is intended to tell people that this artist is high-quality. Their skill wasn’t cheap.

Marketers understand that sometimes people need help knowing how to feel about products and art. It can be unclear if the product is high-quality or if the artist is really good. Describing an unknown young artist as ‘classically trained’ will cause some people to pay closer attention.

After months of interviews and a promotion tour, Starbury shoes were not selling. Then the basketball season started. Stephen Marbury laced up his own brand of shoes and played game after amazing game.

The shoes didn’t fall apart. In fact, Marbury’s game was every bit as good (or better) than the other players. Shoe sales took off. Over the next year, over 4 million pairs of Starbury’s were sold.

Some of my students will want to become performers. A few students may face skeptics in the years ahead because they were not ‘classically trained’.

If that line of questioning happens, I’ll advise them to let their music — their improvisation, their creativity and musical collaborations — speak for itself.

(Thanks to Planet Money for the inspiration of this post.)