In FN’s February magazine, Jordan Brand president Craig Williams joined retailer James Whitner, designer Aleali May and WNBA champ Aerial Powers for an exclusive discussion about their efforts to celebrate Black culture and improve conditions for the Black community.
Like many of Jordan Brand’s most loyal consumers, Craig Williams, who assumed the president role in January 2019, vividly remembers lacing up his first pair of NBA icon Michael Jordan’s signature shoes at the age of 17: a white Air Jordan 1, which he beat up on a basketball court not long after opening the box.
And like his customers, he’s equally passionate about sports, community and culture. On the photo shoot with FN last month, he was quick to debate the best NBA players and greatest rappers of all time.
When the opportunity came about to lead the iconic label, he didn’t hesitate. And more than three years later, he has the same level of passion.
“I don’t feel pressure. It’s excitement. I feel a great sense of responsibility. When I eventually pass the company off, I want it to be healthy and vibrant and have so much runway in the future,” said Williams, who previously spent nearly 14 years as a top exec at The Coca-Cola Company.
That commitment is driving results. Jordan Brand reported sales for fiscal 2021 hit a new record of $4.7 billion, up from $3.6 billion in the previous fiscal year.
For those who know Williams best, the president role is a natural fit. Jillian Tirath, the VP of consumer science and insights at Jordan Brand, worked closely with him at Coca-Cola and has seen Williams blossom as a person.
“He has a huge amount of empathy,” Tirath said. “He is focused on the business, but there is a human element to him that during the course of my career, I have found to be super helpful. Craig first sees the person and then he sees the employee.” She continued, “At Jordan Brand, he’s in his element. It’s just great energy to be around. I can’t speak for him, but as an observation, he’s working on a brand that aligns with his interests, and he’s making a real difference.”
Williams took the helm not long before unrest swept across the country in 2020, renewing conversations of racial injustice and inequity.
Shortly after the death of George Floyd, a Black man who was killed in May 2020 at the hands of white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, Jordan Brand decided to be there when the community needed it most.
In June of that year, the brand — as well as Jordan himself — announced a donation of $100 million over the next 10 years to organizations that promote racial equality, social justice and greater access to education. Its first recipients in 2021 included The National Museum of African American History and Culture, Morehouse College and the Ida B. Wells Society for Investigative Reporting, with more to come this month.
Williams told FN, “When we thought about the Black community commitment, it was to make sure that Black people in North America and the U.S. didn’t have to suffer the same level of racial inequality that existed in the past. It’s a natural thing for us to sell sneakers and T-shirts, which is great, but we’re also interested in what that consumer is interested in every day because we reside in the same communities.”
Of the next round of grants, he said, “It’ll be another opportunity for us to partner with great organizations across the U.S. to continue our efforts in improving the conditions in the Black community. We’re opening up the grant cycle, and it will be open for 30 days starting Feb. 17 — which is MJ’s birthday.”
Looking ahead, Demetria White, VP of communications and purpose at Jordan Brand, said this year the company will focus its philanthropic effort around economic justice, at multiple levels.
“The way our strategy is broken up is we have macro grants, which is for organizations whose annual budget is $1 million and up, and those are usually multi-million-dollar grants,” she said. “And then there are micro investments, for those whose annual operating budgets between $100,000 and $3 million. Because we understand that as you’re investing into large organizations there is also a need to invest in more grassroots organizations.”
For those smaller groups, Jordan Brand said it will increase its grant amount from $1 million to $1.25 million.
Although the brand’s 2020 announcement has garnered widespread praise, people closest to MJ and the brand will tell you they have always been driven by purpose.
Marcus Jordan, founder of Trophy Room and son of the basketball icon, told FN, “If you look at what my dad has done — not just within Jordan Brand and Nike Inc., but as a businessman — he’s developed hospitals in the North Carolina area, he’s got the James R. Jordan Foundation. There are plenty of ways my dad has given back to the African American community. The $100 million grants is just a testament of who my dad is and what he stands for.”
Because of this, Williams said it’s important to keep the iconic athlete’s preferences in mind as Jordan Brand defines its community efforts. “It started with what was important to MJ as a kid: education,” said the brand leader. “That was instilled in him by his mother and father, and he embraced a responsibility to education for himself. By way of the brand, [it’s] an opportunity for us to open access to education for underprivileged youth — starting in the U.S. and expanding in markets around the world.”
Jordan Brand’s longstanding youth outreach program Wings has helped provide education and mentorship to communities worldwide through scholarships and classes. In November 2020, the program expanded to Paris, and Williams said it will continue to enter markets where it’s needed, including its next stop: Manila, in the Philippines.
Tirath noted that overseas expansion for these programs does call for using a different lens. “When we think about the Black experience and trying to provide opportunities, the experience in the U.S. is different to that in Europe or Africa because our histories are different,” she said. “Our team is going to spend time moving away from a U.S.-centered view of sports, of basketball culture and the community at large, and understanding what matters to those consumers. When Wings and other programs come to life, it will be done in a way that’s meaningful in that market as opposed to an export of an existing idea.”
THE INSIDE GAME
Although equity and inclusion have become a bigger focus for the footwear industry in recent years, it has long steered the Jordan Brand business. And execs said it will continue to inform its future.
But achieving its goals in this space hasn’t come without challenges. In June 2020, not long after the murder of Floyd and the announcement of the grants, John Donahoe, CEO of Jordan Brand’s parent company, Nike Inc., received a number of internal complaints about, among things, its lack of Black leaders. Donahoe responded via an internal memo that surfaced online, stating the company needed to get its “own house in order.”
Rather than dwell on the shortcomings, Williams, who was named to Nike’s executive leadership team the following month, said he looked at this as an opportunity. “I love that Nike Inc. said publicly that we are constructively discontent and we haven’t arrived at a perfect place of achievement with respect to diversity, equity and inclusion. We look at opportunities like this as a way for the company to improve,” he said.
Williams also believes the brand’s heightened focus on the Black community can help it achieve its financial goal. “When we do things from a purpose perspective, it gives us an opportunity to also grow with consumers and markets around the world,” he said. “This past year, we had the biggest year that we’ve ever had on the Jordan Brand. It’s because of us doing business in the right way.”
On Nike’s fiscal 2021 earnings call, Donohoe said Jordan Brand’s growth was driven both by its heritage business (specifically, the Air Jordan 1 and 11) and new innovations such as the Zion 1. He also highlighted exclusive women’s releases, including Aleali May’s Air Jordan 1 High Zoom Comfort, which drove more than 40% female buyers — more than 10 points higher than the average Air Jordan 1 buyer profile.
LEAGUE OF WOMEN
Among its core missions, Jordan Brand invested more heavily in its women’s division to ensure it is serving female fans.
Perhaps its most poignant moment last year came in June when MJ posed with nine of the brand’s WNBA ambassadors, a moment to show- case that its family is inclusive.
In part because of such initiatives — and a broader spectrum of coveted product — Jordan Brand’s women’s business grew triple digits in fiscal 2021, a 170% increase over the year prior.
“Women have been underserved in sneaker culture, and we believe we have a unique opportunity to put her first, to design products uniquely for her, to tell stories that are interesting to her, to build partnerships that makes sense for her and the way she views her place within this culture,” Williams said. “Women represents one of the biggest growth opportunities out there.”
What’s more, the company continues to embrace a new era of creatives. It has developed a successful formula by tapping into adjacent worlds of fashion, retail, music and more to build its ecosystem. Last year alone, Jordan Brand worked with James Whitner and his A Ma Maniére retail banner and designer-stylist May to create sneakers that reflected its refined focus.
“We partner with people who are like-minded, who believe they are special and want to contribute,” Williams said. “The good thing about partnership is that it benefits everyone. When we’re all successful, all boats float. And when we’re working together with purpose, the future will be even more promising than what we’re doing today.”