'Brand Belfast' on a journey with a fresh new approach

BACK in 1984 one of the world's greatest sports stars, Michael Jordan, was getting ready for the jump from his amateur college days to the lucrative world of the professional ranks. He was the hottest prospect in US basketball and these were the days of Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Julius Erving, or Dr J, as he was known.

In a cast of amazing athletes and characters, Michael Jordan would take the NBA, the US professional league, by storm in his first season and in every season he played thereafter.

These were still relatively unsophisticated days in the product endorsement world, but Adidas, the largest sportswear firm in the world, was chasing Jordan, as was the traditional powerhouse of American basketball footwear, Converse. And then there was the rising upstart in the marketplace, Nike.

There are a number of stories about Nike's coup in recruiting Jordan. One relates to the difference between the respective headquarters of the three rival companies. Nike's was modern, cool and aligned clearly with how the company wanted to project itself. Jordan felt instantly comfortable there, the story goes. Money was also a factor of course. Jordan got the biggest deal in the history of US basketball, but the cash wasn't decisive.

Nike had ideas about designing a whole new shoe around Jordan. The ideas were fresh, innovative and absolutely in line with Nike's ‘Just do It' ethos. His new Air Jordan basketball shoes were initially banned by the NBA for their non-uniform colour schemes but Nike, the disruptor, celebrated that and advertised to prospective customers that the NBA couldn't stop them from wearing the shoes. “Be like Mike” the ad went. And millions did. Well, we bought the shoes anyway. I got a pair as a teenage basketball player in St Pat's Armagh and thought I was the coolest thing ever.

By the end of his first season in 1984/85, Nike had sold $70 million worth of the new shoes. And by the end of 1985, the Air Jordan franchise had yielded more than $100 million in revenues. By 2012, almost 30 years later and long after his retirement, Nike's sales of Air Jordans had reached $2.5 billion, 58 per cent of all basketball shoes bought in the US.

I say this to illustrate the importance of branding. Very often the word 'brand' gets mixed up with what is often referred to as a logo or device. In the case of Nike, it's the famous swoosh. In the case of Apple, it's the partly bitten apple. The list goes on.

The brand is something completely different, in Nike's case it was a new approach to thinking about what Jordan should have on his feet; it was the carefully designed and no doubt expensive building the company was housed in. It was also the cheeky but extremely clever approach to its advertising. All of these things and many more are examples of Nike being true to its brand values.

City branding is much more difficult because no single entity can control everything that is going on. People can always let a city down, by setting off a bomb, demonstrating intolerance or any amount of other things which can look bad to the outside world. Good city brands can have a powerful effect though. The ‘I love New York' (using the famous red heart) efforts of the late 1970s and into the 1980s helped to transform the image of New York and inspire its people to think about their city in a different way. New, tougher crime laws and major new investment were crucial too of course but New York was gradually transformed.

Belfast is going through a city branding process at the moment and the new device, the Starburst, was unveiled late last year. There was the usual dreary debate which overly focussed on the cost and the design itself without a lot of discussion about what direction the city was going in and what Belfast has which makes it special.

‘Starburst' (which I love) is just an expression of that energy which the city now has; its confidence and its ambition - the mix of tough and tender, gritty and glamorous. Yes, Belfast has been held back and probably will be again at times, but there is also a sense of readiness too. A readiness to accept more visitors; win more investment; build new buildings; create new art and work harder at what unites the city rather than focussing too much on what divides it.

Some of that might sound too optimistic and not true to the everyday lives of many people here but there is an energy and pride in the city which can help to inspire people, even those living in the toughest of circumstances. That inspiration is one of the things a new Belfast brand can deliver on.

Last week Lisa Caldwell, the new of head of marketing and communications for Belfast City Council, which is leading on the new brand work, presented it to basically every important outward facing marketing person in the city, representing the likes of Visit Belfast, Tourism NI, Titanic Belfast, the Waterfront Hall etc.

The purpose of the meeting was to ensure all of those organisations understand Belfast's brand direction and can implement it in a way which is complementary to their work. It was a powerful and very useful gathering. Lisa told a great story about a conversation with a colleague who had told her she was doing her job because she wanted Belfast to be a place where her son might decide to live. Of course, Lisa's colleague hoped her son would travel and explore the world but ultimately that he would return to the city because it was able to fulfil its potential and his too.

Back in 1984, Michael Jordan contracted with a company which seemed to align itself with his ambitions and his potential. The success over the next 30 years has been globally phenomenal for Jordan himself and for Nike.

Belfast is now on a journey with a new approach to how it presents itself, and it seems to me the city's energy and potential is captured brilliantly in that. All we have to do is now is go and make it happen with every small (and large) thing we do here.

:: Paul McErlean ( is managing director of MCE Public Relations Ltd.

:: Next week: Conor Lambe

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