Air Jordan has built brand loyalty and longevity that most marketers only dream about. The brand has transcended generations since its inception in the early 1980’s, and somehow maintained its secure spot at the forefront of streetwear coolness throughout the hard-working, status hungry culture of Gen X, the ambitious and tech-savvy Millennials, and now the socially conscious, digitally native Gen Z.
For the first addition to our Marketing Leaders Spotlight Series, I sat down with Maria Civitate, Global Manager at Nike, who drives omni-channel marketing strategy for SNKRS and NBHD in Jordan Brand. I had the unique opportunity to not only get a peek behind the curtain at the secret sauce that fuels the incredible Jordan brand, but to learn how Maria’s career journey in tech and marketing agencies brought her to where she is today. Maria has a fascinating and impressive background from working on the agency side building and executing engagement and growth strategies for Fortune 500 brands like Gatorade, to working brand side at Nike, developing digital-first marketing strategies to support beloved sneaker brands like Jordan.
Could you provide a little background on your current and previous roles at Nike?
I joined Jordan Brand at Nike in 2019 as a Global Digital Manager for Performance Basketball. At that time, my role was focused on defining a digital-first strategy to support Jordan performance footwear including the game shoe and signature business. That quickly evolved, expanded and focused all at once. I found myself leading a broader, seasonal strategy for Jordan Brand across the @Jumpman23 social channels.
At the start of this year, I had the privilege of joining the SNKRS and NBHD function within the Global Consumer Direct Marketing team for Jordan Brand. That’s a really fancy way of saying that my job is to create strategies to connect Jordan Brand to the sneaker community and elevate influential voices in both digital and physical touch points. While this role is completely new for me, I still get to tap into my passion for digital marketing, storytelling and consumer-first strategy.
The sneaker industry has historically been a male-dominated space. Is this still the case? From both business and consumer perspectives? What has this experience been like for you?
There has been great progress in recent years and there is still work to be done. I’m constantly inspired by people like Aleali May who are paving the way for women in sneakers everywhere. I also value male-led brands like Off-White and A Ma Manieré that are using their platforms to collaborate on products specifically in celebration of women. Moments like that fill my cup because they’re a direct reflection of my experience as a consumer and marketer. I’ve walked into many rooms where, not only am I the only woman, but I am also the youngest person. Those moments have proven challenging at times. However, I’ve also been fortunate to have many male mentors and advocates who have encouraged me and reminded me of the value of my voice. One of the most beautiful things about sneaker culture is the passion of the community. That community has been evolving, becoming more inclusive and inviting new people in to share in the love of sneakers.
You’ve managed digital and brand marketers throughout your career. What do you think are the most important skills or personality traits in a high performing marketer? How do you know when you’ve found a star?
It’s the curiosity for me. Those who dare to ask “what if,” those who challenge the status quo and those willing to do so without ego have no limits to what they can achieve. When I look across the most inspiring and impactful people I’ve had the privilege of working alongside, they have several things in common:
- They prioritized doing what’s right over being right
- They sought to improve themselves, not to prove themselves
- They welcomed feedback and made space for diversity of thought
We can teach someone about the fundamentals of marketing, social strategy, etc. if they are willing to listen and learn. It is much more difficult to teach someone how to be a good person. In fact, I’ve never had much luck with the latter. So, when I’m looking for new talent, I’m looking first for a good person. As a manager, it’s my job to help empower them to become a great marketer.
How did COVID-19 impact the sneaker industry? How do you see the industry evolving?
COVID-19 has had such a unique impact on Jordan Brand. When “The Last Dance” aired it re-introduced MJ’s greatness to the world. The documentary series became a vehicle for connection, uniting generations of the sneaker community around the legacy of Jordan and the Chicago Bulls. Interest in sneakers hit a new height as people clamored to bring a little piece of Jordan legend into their homes.
While COVID-19 brought many things to a screeching halt, it accelerated the Consumer Direct strategy Nike had already been putting in place. 2020 became a pressure test for the foundation we had laid. As a result, we’ve learned so much and will only get better at how we show up for consumers. The industry at a large will continue to evolve and find new ways to bring the sneaker community together, even when we’re all far apart.
What's your approach to marketing data and insights?
Someone recently said to me that the best marketers balance both “math and magic.” That sentiment aligns with my philosophy to data and insights. My approach is to keep the consumer at the center of everything we do. It’s all too easy to get swept away by brand and business priorities. Thankfully we have access to so much consumer data within and outside Nike to keep our strategies grounded. At the same time, I’m a big believer in creating hypotheses, testing and trusting the magic that oftentimes can’t be quantified. We should be asking questions that we don’t know the answers to and trying new things that help us get closer to meaningful answers. As long as we are learning, growing and having real conversations about what’s working and what isn’t, through the lens of consumer data and insights, then we’re on the right path.
Air Jordan is a brand that has transcended generations and is still the height of coolness in the sneakers and streetwear world. What is the Jordan brand’s secret to cultivating and maintaining such longevity in its appeal since the 1980s?
One thing we talk about often is the fact that young consumers weren’t alive when MJ was playing in the NBA. And yet, to your point, the legend of his greatness has been passed on from generation to generation, standing the test of time. His excellence transcended the court and has inspired everyone from Travis Scott and Zion Williamson, to a young kid in Chicago or even in Paris. The brand has become so much bigger than the man and is now a symbol of the greatness we see within ourselves. Wearing a pair of Jordan’s places you among a community of people who want to be the greatest in whatever they do.
Social commerce is a hot topic for brands in 2021. What are your predictions for the evolution of social media shopping this year?
It's the hottest of topics and one that holds an infinite amount of possibility. There are a few things that really intrigue me about the future of digital commerce.
We’re seeing widespread democratization of influence. Gen Z is looking at their peers as influencers and they want to see what real people have to say about a product before they purchase it. They’re also influenced by a multitude of different channels before they make a purchase. A friend’s transaction on Venmo might spark their interest so they Google a product, get distracted Snapchatting another friend about it and then get served an ad about the product on Instagram a few days later. As marketers, we get to explore how all of these influences can come together to power storytelling and build connections between the products we offer and the consumers we serve.
I’m also anticipating a world where commerce will become both increasingly seamless and experiential at the same time. The Amazon model became the north star for e-commerce because it catered to generations who prioritized convenience over everything. As Gen Z enters the picture, they’re flipping the script a bit. This generation is experience-driven with time and disposable income. Gen Z doesn’t find Amazon nearly as appealing as older generations. While they’re in this chapter of their life, they are looking for immersive and engaging experiences when they shop. As they age and take on more responsibility, Gen Z consumers may start to prioritize convenience. The task for brands today is to story tell and create connection with these consumers now so that they’ll be loyal and the brand will become the automatic, default choice in the future.
Gen Z was born into a world where technology just is. They’ve never known a life without it and because of this, their digital identities are as important as their IRL ones. I believe this generation is going to push commerce into a place where there is heavy investment in personal expression online. This could be anything from buying a pair of Jordan’s for your Fortnite avatar, dressing your Bitmoji, and investing in digital collectibles and trading cards.
What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned in your career?
I’ve learned several hard lessons throughout my career. Probably the most important is that my career does not define me. If people at my funeral talk about me as a marketer, I’ve truly done something wrong. We all have so much more to offer this world than a job title. It’s easy to get so wrapped up in a job that you lose a sense of self. Recognizing this and letting go of that one-dimensional definition can be a game changer. Your mental and physical health will improve, relationships become deeper and more meaningful, and the quality of life will get exponentially better. You might even start to enjoy work more, feel smarter, more creative, and a better teammate. Once you remove all the pressure, it allows you to be a freer, truer version of yourself.
What has been your biggest win in your career so far?
The most important thing I’ve ever done has been to help others unlock the potential within themselves. I was the first in my family to graduate college and, while they are incredibly supportive, they didn’t know how to help me navigate a career in corporate America. Fortunately, there have been many kind and generous souls who helped guide me along the way. To pay this forward, I’ve poured an immense amount of time and energy into building, leading and participating in internship and mentorship programs. People are our single most important resource. Investing in others has and will always yield the biggest returns in my life.
Follow Maria Civitate on Instagram here.
Stay tuned for our next Marketing Leadership Spotlight, coming soon.
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