The Little Company that Challenged Nike

By George Farris, CEO, Farris Marketing
YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – You’ve no doubt heard about small unknown companies that use unusual and aggressive marketing to take on and beat an industry giant. But what happens if the industry giant also has awesome marketing chops?  Which company wins?

Nike vs. AND1

Nike vs. AND1 was a marketing matchup that surprised many. Even though Nike didn’t become a registered brand name until 1971, it was a well-known brand and, as the Greek goddess of victory, connected to sports since at least 550 BCE. Often mentioned in descriptions of athletics games in ancient Greece, Nike was portrayed with outspread wings hovering over the winner of a competition. 

Today, she’s the global goddess of sportswear, hovering over competitors and generating more than $200 billion in annual sales. Very few companies have really challenged Nike. But a little company called AND1 gave it a good shot.

AND1 was started by three basketball-loving graduate students addicted to playing what was known as “streetball” on inner-city public basketball courts. Streetball has been described as “basketball, hip-hop and graffiti all in one.” 

AND1 founders recognized that few inner-city residents could afford the high price of an NBA ticket. But crowds often gathered regularly at public playground courts where they were entertained with streetball by wannabe, and even some former, NBA players.

A large part of Streetball was trash talk. So AND1’s first products were T-shirts with trash-talk phrases. The wording was tame by today’s standards. One-liners like, “My game is butta … you’re toast,” were typical.

In the company’s second year, it signed a deal with Foot Locker to sell the shirts in 1,500 stores.  It wasn’t long before AND1 added athletic shoes to its product line. But selling sneakers to a public that idolized Nike-sponsored Michael Jordan and his signature “Air Jordans” was not going to be easy. 

So the folks at AND1 determined their best chance at success was to use the same weapon Nike used to achieve success – creative marketing.

AND1 could not afford millions of dollars in TV spots. So they went directly to the public with an unusual guerrilla marketing approach. Instead of promoting its products directly, AND1 created teams of the best streetballers and outfitted them with AND1 gear.

AND1 promoted games between the teams and streetball personalities such as Grayson “The Professor” Scott Boucher and Philip “Hot Sauce” Champion. AND1 also had an ESPN series that was the No. 1 show among male teens in the United States.

The strategy helped AND1 become the second-largest seller of basketball footwear in 2001 with revenues of $285 million. Eventually, Nike noticed the popularity of streetball and began to use the “street” theme as well and sponsored similar events.  AND1 owners knew their time in the sun was over when Nike copied their core message and strategy. Nike did it bigger and better.  AND1 founders sold most of their stock, cashed in and moved on.

Technically speaking, AND1 never beat Nike. But its team members became celebrities. Its founders became rich. Its fans were entertained and a singular urban culture was introduced to America.

Ultimately, AND1 proved you can challenge a company, even one like Nike, known for its marketing, with the same weapon – marketing. 

In fact, if they looked up, AND1’s founders might have noticed the Winged Goddess of Victory hovering above them.