The story of the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls is already an interesting one. The team had won five championships in seven years and was going for a sixth. Their general manager told the coach he wasn’t allowed back the following season, even if they didn’t lose a single game. The best player said if that coach didn’t come back, he’d retire. Their second best player publicly demanded a trade and sat out a large portion of the season with a foot injury. Another top player went to Las Vegas on a multi-day bender in the middle of the season, returning to practice in pajamas.
As you can imagine, there’s plenty to work with here. And The Last Dance doesn’t disappoint.
Director Jason Hehir, star Michael Jordan, and the rest of the cast and crew have put together a fascinating look at both the final season of the Bulls dynasty, as well as deep dives into these players’ lives. The result is both entertaining television, but also a great playbook for marketing professionals.
Here are seven ways The Last Dance can inform any marketing or communications strategies.
The power of storytelling
A real strength of The Last Dance is using multiple people to tell the same story. Sure, everyone is talking about the Bulls dynasty in some capacity, but Hehir weaves in multiple viewpoints to give the proper context for what’s being discussed.
A great example comes from a story about Jordan’s competitiveness. During his second season in the league, Jordan broke his foot. The Bulls weren’t competing for a championship that year—in fact, their final record of 30-52 is the second-worst ever record to make the playoffs—but Jordan still badly wanted to play.
The scene goes back and forth between Jordan and Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf. Doctors said there was a 10 percent chance Jordan could reinjure himself by coming back too soon. If he did, his career would be over. For Reinsdorf, it was a no brainer. The team wasn’t competitive, why risk the future of the franchise?
Jordan didn’t see it that way, though. To him, there was a 90 percent chance he’d be totally fine. So Reinsdorf offered another perspective to show the risk/reward ratio. He asked Michael: “If I had a terrible headache and I gave you a bottle of pills where nine of them would cure you and one of them would kill you, would you take a pill?”
Jordan’s response? “Depends on how f***ing bad the headache is.”
The Last Dance also does a great job putting us in the proper time and space. Even though the overarching story is about that 1997-98 Bulls season, the story is much bigger than that. The docuseries uses a simple sliding timeline to take us back to another era, such as Jordan’s injury, his freshman year of college, or when Dennis Rodman was just nine years old. That helps provide the right context for the time and lays a foundation for the main event of the dynasty’s final season.
The sliding timeline is a simple tool, but a good reminder that not all stories have to be complex. They just need to put your audience in the right mindset and then educate, entertain, and empower them—or sometimes all three.
What the future of advertising could look like
How many times have you been in this situation? You’re watching a recorded show and it goes to commercial. You immediately grab the remote to fast forward and get back to the main event.
Even at double the speed, we can still see what’s on the screen. And State Farm and ESPN CreativeWorks took advantage of that with a very clever ad placement:
That’s ESPN broadcaster Kenny Mayne, who joined the network in 1994. The ad used the same graphics and music SportsCenter had in the late 90s, and started with the news that the Bulls had just completed their second threepeat.
For a moment, it looked like it was simply a highlight from the docuseries. Viewers that were fast-forwarding likely stopped so that they could see what was going on. Mayne went on to predict that the season would be chronicled in a 10-part series on ESPN, titled “something like ‘The Last Dance’” and that it would be “lit—you don’t even know what that means yet.”
Mayne makes a few other predictions, wrapping things up by saying, “this clip will be used to promote the documentary in a State Farm commercial.”
Customers appreciate an immersive experience. For the right audience, an ad that tailors to what they’re already watching can help ensure your message resonates. Even adhering to the trends of a specific platform—make those first five seconds of your YouTube ad count!—can go a long way. Expect to see more of these immersive ads throughout the coming decade.
How to get people buzzing
The Last Dance has had a lot of hype around it, and it’s partly buoyed by current circumstances. The docuseries was originally supposed to air during this year’s NBA Finals. With the NBA season indefinitely postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic, who knows when the playoffs will happen, if at all?
With that uncertainty in mind, ESPN decided to debut the docuseries in mid-April, airing two episodes every Sunday night for five weeks. It proved to be a smart move and is now the most-watched ESPN documentary ever. There aren’t really any other sports on TV, so ESPN has a captive audience.
That may not have been the case if the docuseries aired during the NBA Finals, as originally planned. The main season The Last Dance covers ended 22 years ago. For younger audiences, that story might have had trouble resonating against a 2020 Finals backdrop. Plenty of modern NBA fans don’t remember Michael Jordan playing—would they have tuned in if sports were proceeding like normal?
Michael Jordan is also making a smart move by promoting one of his brands. No, it’s not Nike, Gatorade, or McDonald’s. It’s Cincoro, a tequila Jordan co-owns. Jordan doesn’t broadcast his drink of choice, though; he merely has a tumbler of it next to him whenever he’s on camera, the volume slowly decreasing throughout the conversation.
The GOAT was counting on fans to get excited about what he was drinking, but someone else could share what, exactly, he was enjoying. And ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne delivered:
Look at the landscape when you’re telling a story or launching a campaign. Are you taking control of the conversation or merely getting lost in a sea of chatter?
We love watching reactions
As a whole, we enjoy seeing people’s reactions to things. It’s fun to imagine ourselves in their position, wondering how we’d handle the same situation. In fact, there are entire YouTube channels dedicated just to reactions.
Hehir knows this and incorporates it into the story. On multiple occasions, he has someone watch an iPad with a clip of someone else speaking. Sometimes it’s used sentimentally—Jordan’s mom reading a letter he wrote to her in college—other times, it helps push the plot forward.
For example, the docuseries explores the rivalry between the Bulls and the Detroit Pistons. Detroit defeated the Bulls in the playoffs three years in a row before Chicago finally beat Detroit during the 1991 season. As the final seconds ticked off the clock, the Pistons, led by guard Isiah Thomas, walked off the court without shaking hands with the Bulls players.
Jordan has always remembered that, and he still hasn’t forgiven Thomas for it. Whether the non-handshake played a part in Thomas not making the 1992 U.S. Olympic team is another story, but let’s look at the rivalry in the context of The Last Dance. Thomas gets interviewed about the series and takes a softer stance, saying he would have shaken hands if he knew there would be such a backlash from his actions.
Hehir offers to show Jordan the clip of Thomas speaking, but Jordan dismisses it before he even sees the video. He thinks Thomas will make up an excuse or change his story based on the media’s reaction. Eventually, Jordan gives in and watches the video, and immediately confirms he was right.
It highlights Jordan’s competitive fire, for better or for worse, and his drive to be the best. And it makes for some pretty entertaining viewing.
Brands can similarly share their customer reactions. Whether it’s highlighting a social media comment, encouraging reviews, or showing customers creatively using your product or service, “reaction content” can be quite beneficial to business.
Encourage your team’s unique strengths and personalities
The 97-98 Bulls certainly had a lot of interesting personalities, but perhaps the two most “out there” belonged to coach Phil Jackson and forward Dennis Rodman.
Jackson was not your stereotypical coach; during his first interview to be an assistant with the Bulls, he arrived in a Hawaiian shirt, shorts, sandals, and a hat. He didn’t get the job then, but after being told how to dress, he eventually earned an assistant coaching position.
Jackson studied under another assistant, Tex Winter, who had developed a new strategy called the triangle offense, where everyone touches the ball in a series of passes and cuts. When Jackson was promoted to head coach in 1989, Jordan didn’t like it. In this new offense, his scoring load would be reduced.
However, after acclimating to the strategy during Jackson’s first year as head coach, Jordan—and by his extension, his teammates—bought into Jackson’s vision. That mindset shift eventually led to six championships.
Meanwhile, Dennis Rodman was the most mercurial personality on the team. He had a tough childhood and was homeless for a period of time. After graduating high school, he was only 5’9” and not very athletic. However, a massive growth spurt added another 12 inches to his frame. Suddenly, Rodman had an opportunity to play basketball in college, and eventually made the NBA.
Rodman was on those Bad Boy Pistons teams that defeated the Bulls, but they welcomed him with open arms in Chicago, despite all of his quirks. The team understood that Rodman was feeling stressed during the season, and allowed him to take a break to go to Las Vegas. Of course, Rodman was only supposed to go for 48 hours and went M.I.A. for nearly twice that amount of time. The team still trusted that after refreshing his batteries, he’d be good to go.
Yes, Jordan did have to go directly to Rodman’s hotel room, which featured Rodman’s then-love interest Carmen Electra hiding from view, to bring him back to the Bulls. And yes, Rodman showed up to his first practice in pajamas and slippers. During the practice, though, the team ran a drill where they ran around the perimeter of the court in a line, with the player in back having to sprint past everyone to get to the front. When it was Rodman’s turn to run, he sprinted so quickly and so far past the rest of the pack that no one else could catch up. He was back, and he played an integral part in the Bulls’ final title run.
No matter how big your team is, you’ll have to deal with unique personalities and skill sets. Rather than chiding someone for a different approach, take the time to learn their working style and let them share their thoughts. You just might find a new way to be successful.
Be willing to take risks
When Jordan entered the league, Converse was the official shoe of the NBA. Nike, then an upstart apparel company, saw an opportunity.
Jordan’s agent, David Falk, primarily worked with tennis players, but thought positioning Jordan the same way he would a tennis player or golfer would be better for his branding potential. He told Nike that if they were to work with Jordan, they would have to design a signature shoe for him.
Nike took a risk on an unproven rookie. Per Howard White, a Nike executive, most top players in the league could make $100,000 to endorse a shoe. Jordan received $250,000 because Nike believed he could deliver.
The company also used Spike Lee to produce its commercials. That lended credibility helped bring additional interest to Jordan’s shoes.
According to the documentary, when the Air Jordan was first released, Nike expected it to make $3 million over the first four years of Jordan’s career. By the time his rookie season ended, Jordan’s shoes had brought in $126 million.
“Before Michael Jordan, sneakers were just for playing basketball,” Fortune’s Roy S. Johnson says in the docuseries. “All of a sudden, sneakers became fashion and culture.”
Nike also bet on Jordan’s competitive fire. Had he not had the great career that he had, the partnership could have backfired. But they saw his drive to be the best and went for it. Jordan knew that, too.
“My game was my biggest endorsement. My dedication to the game led to all this other stuff,” he says. “If I would have averaged two points and three rebounds, I wouldn’t have signed anything with anybody.”
Listen to your mother
This one is just good life advice in general. When Jordan first learned Nike was interested in endorsing him, he scoffed at the thought. His mom thought otherwise, telling him he may not like it, but he was going to go to the Nike campus and listen.
“You have to give them an opportunity,” Deloris Jordan said.
Considering Jordan has made more than $1 billion from Nike, that was some sage motherly advice.