The NBA and Superstar Marketing

Ever since Michael Jordan laced up the first pair of Air Jordans, athletes and branding have gone hand in hand.  Sometimes it works out great – like in the case of Jordan – other times, not so much – like Kobe Bryant endorsing Nutella.  The NBA has more marketable superstars than any other sports league, but today I want to look at three players in particular and why their campaigns worked.

James Harden and FootLocker

Just before the 2012 season, Footlocker began running ads with James Harden (then a young up-and-comer from the Oklahoma City Thunder who has since been traded to the Houston Rockets) for their stores.  The first one involved Harden and his former teammate, Russell Westbrook, standing around at a party when Westbrook accidentally squirts mustard onto Harden’s shirt.  Harden responds with “It’s okay, with gear this fresh, I always have more than one” then rips off the clothes to reveal the exact same outfit underneath.  Westbrook, looking perplexed, tries it again with the same results.  Finally, he squirts the mustard onto Harden’s beard but  harden just rips that off, showing he has another one waiting, all the while looking disappointed at Westbrook.

The second commercial makes fun of Kris Humphries:

Are these ads effective? There are four points to consider when determining if a celebrity endorsement is truly effective: brand power, star power, the star’s authority on a product, and lasting appeal.

It’s tough to go into any mall in the country without seeing a Footlocker so the brand name is there.  When these commercials were airing, James Harden hadn’t quite become the star he is now but he was still a pretty big name for anyone who watches the NBA.  James Harden and Footlocker go hand in hand.  A sporting apparel store using an athlete for branding is a no-brainer. While each individual ad doesn’t necessarily have lasting appeal, the campaign itself does if Harden’s star continues to grow.

Footlocker is a company who doesn’t need to go outside of their industry to grab an audience.  They know who is going to shop with them and what they want to see.

Kyrie Irving and Pepsi

Full disclosure: I am a huge Kyrie Irving fan because he plays for my hometown Cleveland Cavaliers.  Irving and Pepsi teamed up in 2012 to launch a series of ads called “Uncle Drew.”  Irving would dress up like an old man and go to street ball courts.  He would sit on the bench and wait until he was allowed in the game.  The other players would be surprised that this “old man” played better than anyone else on the court. Yes the videos were staged, but that doesn’t really make them any less funny.

The ads were a big hit and went on to include Minnesota Timberwolves star Kevin Love as “Wes.”  They even had NBA legend, Bill Russell get involved in one of them.

Do Kyrie Irving and Pepsi fit together? With the huge health movement going on in the US and some major cities threatening to tax soda and other sugary drinks, I have a hard time believing that Kyrie Irving is a major Pepsi drinker. However, the ads are pretty funny and Pepsi got a huge bump on their YouTube page from the ads.

Pepsi was able to go viral because even though the videos were staged, they still involved the community and comedy.  It didn’t really matter that the videos weren’t real, they made it look like an 80 year old man was performing moves like he was in a video game, that’s a surefire way to get noticed. Users stayed tuned to see which neighborhood or athlete would be next, which made people come back for more.

Chris Paul and State Farm

Chris Paul is currently a free-agent, but has spent the past three seasons as point guard for the Los Angeles Clippers. He is a top-10 player in the NBA and has led the league in assists twice in his career.

Earlier this year, State Farm started a new ad campaign titled “Born to Assist” featuring Paul.  In these ads, Chris Paul plays two roles.  First, he’s playing himself, then he’s playing his own long-lost twin brother Cliff Paul. Chris is an NBA superstar; Cliff is a State Farm insurance agent.

State Farm is the largest car insurance company in America and Chris Paul is a major NBA star, but does anyone really care what he has to say about insurance? Chris Paul might drink Pepsi and shop at Footlocker, but why should we care about what car insurance he uses?

The ad has lasting appeal though, it’s pretty funny and light hearted, but the music in the background also leaves some intrigue and has the viewer asking “Where can this go next?”  In a world of Tivo and mute buttons, brands that advertise on TV need to create content that engages viewers and keeps them from changing the channel.

Athletes, and all celebrities for that matter, will continue to be used for marketing and advertising purposes as long as they’re profitable. The most important thing for marketers and PR people to ask though is whether this person actually makes sense. Do they belong with our product or are we grasping at straws to make a connection?