When Michael Jordan appeared on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno on Sept. 24, 1996, he was at a high point in his career, just months removed from a fourth NBA championship and in the midst of a media blitz for Space Jam, slated to be released in November.
But that night, Jordan was particularly excited about another venture. Receiving equal billing with a film that has come to be regarded as a classic of the sports/cartoon subgenre was a 3.4-ounce bottle of Michael Jordan cologne, released in October that year.
After some small talk, Leno brought out the cologne and proceeded to walk through a promotional kit that contained five tiny spray bottles, each representing one of the elements that made up the fragrance: “Cool,” “Rare Air,” “Sensual, “Pebble Beach,” and “Home Run.” (To that last scent, Leno said, “So this is really the rarest of all,” referring to Jordan’s baseball career.)
“Smells good doesn’t it,” Jordan said, with a wide grin on his face. “It does smell good,” Leno responded, taking a whiff of the bottle.
That would be one of the few times anyone had anything nice to say about Michael Jordan cologne.
More than two decades later, on the website Fragrantica, the best reviews you can find about the cologne range from “Great after the gym fragrance. Honestly safe for just about anything” to “Spray it, and be transported back to 1999 playing N64 or Dreamcast.” My personal favorite: “I like to wear it with my Pippen jersey and see if anyone notices. Nobody notices.”
When I recently posted about the cologne on my Twitter and Instagram feeds, memories flooded in from followers. One person gifted it to their sibling as a gag. Another remembers finding a complimentary bottle in a public bathroom at a sandwich shop in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Several people remembered their dad telling them it was made of Jordan’s actual sweat. This kind of urban legend (the cologne will make me be like Mike) was pervasive. They believed if you sprayed the cologne on yourself, you would magically become a better hooper.
Then another theme started to emerge: no one really liked how the cologne smelled. Jay Willis, a staff writer at GQ, said that Michael Jordan brand was his first cologne. He remembers buying it from a drugstore in seventh grade.
“The scent was overripe citrus and hairspray,” he said. “But all I could really smell was the ringz.”
R.J. Casey, who works for Fantagraphics Books, an American publisher of alternative comics, grew up a huge Bulls fan in Chicago, and remembers lines of kids with their parents waiting outside department stores at a local mall when the cologne released.
“You would have every fourth grader wearing half the bottle the next day at school,” Casey said. “Elementary schools must have smelled so bad for a week or two.”
Eddie Huang — an author, chef, restaurateur, and food personality — first encountered Michael Jordan cologne at Monroeville Mall in Pittsburgh.
“It was hands down the most foul cologne I’ve ever smelled,” Huang said. “It had this heavy smell of leather. It smelled like aged butt cheese in a baseball glove.”
Jordan’s reputation as a person depends on who you ask, but he rarely puts his name on a bad product. Space Jam grossed $230 million at the box office on a $80 million budget. His Jordan Brand signature shoes are still a top-seller in the sneaker market. This year, Jordan celebrated his 30th year in partnership with Hanes. He is a powerhouse mogul in so many things. So what, then, went wrong with his cologne?
Marian Bendeth is a global fragrance expert based out of Toronto, Canada. When we met recently, I brought with me a bottle of the original Michael Jordan cologne (note: there have been many other Michael Jordan branded colognes that have released over the years, as summarized by this YouTube review).
Before pulling the bottle out of my backpack, Bendeth mentioned a pet peeve she has about fragrances: people don’t smell them as they’re intended.
“Fragrance goes through three stages, a top, middle, and base,” Bendeth said. “The top notes is basically your hello. It’s your introduction. You’re shaking hands. It doesn’t last long. If it’s a date, the top notes sets the impression of how it’s gonna go, but it doesn’t mean anything.”
Almost all of the people with fleeting memories about Michael Jordan cologne likely took a whiff of the bottle and made a snap judgment. To adhere to Bendeth’s rules, I sprayed the cologne on my wrist, and then waited for the base notes, the scent that is meant to last after application, to settle in — blonde woods, cashmere musk, sandalwood, and oak. We agreed to assess the scent at the end of our interview.
In 1996, Michael Jordan cologne sold for $12-35 in department and sporting goods stores, depending on the size of the bottle. Launched by the design house Bijan with a $20 million ad campaign, the logo was a black silhouette of Jordan’s head on a red background. According to market research at the time, 85 percent of people identified the logo immediately as Jordan, who said it was “pretty weird” that so many people recognized him.
The cologne sold very well initially. According to Fast Company, Bijan had $40 million in sales in the first seven weeks, making it the best selling new fragrance of 1996. The Fragrance Foundation even gave the cologne two awards: Men’s Fragrance Star of the Year and Men’s National Advertising Campaign of the Year. The sales figures were impressive, but the consumers were not impressed. Two decades later, the cologne is available as a discounted item from third-party sellers on Amazon.
According to Bendeth, an important component of any fragrance is its design and marketing, also known in the industry as the juice. That juice she says, likely accounted for the cologne’s early sales boom.
Bendeth was impressed by all of these elements when we spoke, from the silhouette logo, to the cutout of a basketball on the bottle, to the Michael Jordan autograph on the box, and the rubber material at the bottom of the bottle that is reminiscent of a basketball sneaker.
“They made a good juice,” Bendeth said, before adding, “but they missed the mark on the demographic.”
In a 1996 commercial promoting the cologne, Jordan stands in a steamy bathroom, with just a towel covering himself, whistling and shaving his head. The silhouette of Jordan appears with the cologne bottle. There is no dialogue or voiceover. The ad doesn’t bother to explain the cologne except to say: Michael Jordan is the pitchman for this product.
For young people, that minimalist marketing was enough because Jordan was a force of cool all by himself. At the time of the cologne’s release, Bijan said they were targeting 16-to-34-year-old men, fans of Jordan who were also the most likely demographic to buy his sneakers and other endorsements.
But as time went on and the scent failed to deliver on what the juice promised, Michael Jordan cologne became one of many casualties during the ‘90s when too many celebrities — athletes, singers, and movie stars — tried to push their own signature smells.
“It was hit or miss,” Bendeth said. “And it still is.” Jordan’s cologne was also competing against fragrances from more established brands, including Ralph Lauren and LaCoste. “It wasn’t a given that any one celebrity would ace it in their first go round.”
The sales figures for Michael Jordan cologne were impressive, but most people who bought it didn’t feel like they got a product that was worth their time or money.
About 20 minutes after applying the scent to my wrist, I’m ready for my assessment. According to Bendeth, Michael Jordan cologne meshes well with my body’s DNA. A mix of sandalwood and citrus remains.
And it’s a scent that I don’t mind at all.
Since our interview, I’ve been using Michael Jordan cologne regularly for a month, though I have not yet tried to wear it with a Pippen jersey to see if anyone notices.
I have to admit, though, the scent doesn’t make me feel like a basketball phenom/movie star/sneaker mogul at the height of his power. Far from smelling like the symbol of power, grace, and cool that was Jordan, the scent is … distinguished. A sporty fragrance sophisticated enough to go into a boardroom, perhaps.
Years after he left basketball, Jordan’s heyday is still influential enough to make him one of the most powerful endorsers in the world. Jordan’s signature sneakers are still sought after whenever they’re re-released, specifically iconic models like the Air Jordan 11 “Concords” and Air Jordan 6 “Infrared,” which sold out almost immediately over the past 12 months.
The cologne? It may have missed the demographic it was being marketed towards, particularly young kids who looked up to Jordan, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t worthy of the Jordan brand. It simply reflected a different Jordan, one that was after its time — the gambling, golfing, cigar-smoking bon vivant who Jordan settled into.
It was, according to Bendeth, a fragrance meant for a mature audience, set up for failure from the start.
“If I was a 14-year-old kid,” she said, “I’d be like, ‘I smell like my dad.’”