Defending The Throne

LeBron James’ endorsement marketing has received a lot of attention over the last couple of months stemming from Magic Johnson’s assessment that he is underutilized commercially. However, I’d argue that there are a number of contributing factors that go beyond a surface level perspective of this marketing equation. So, let’s peel the onion back and take a look at both sides.

Nike, The Coca-Cola Company (Sprite and Powerade), 2K Sports, Samsung, McDonalds, Beats By Dr. Dre, Sheets, Carmex and Dunkin’ Donuts (China). I don't know about you, but in my opinion, that's a strong portfolio of brands; blue chips, category leaders, equity deals and some China coverage. 

So ... what’s the problem, exactly? Oh that's right - the number of TV commercials he has appeared in recently. 

When a brand signs a spokesperson (whether or not they carry the cachet of an athlete like LeBron), the company is responsible for how the partnership is activated. In this case, Beats By Dr. Dre and 2K Sports ran TV spots during the playoffs featuring LBJ, while others looked to leverage his journey to ring #2 in the digital space. 

Why? One can only speculate, but some potential reasons could include the lingering hangover from three seasons past, brands uncovering a more effective “on brand” story to tell, or perhaps even budget restrictions. It’s no surprise that TV campaigns during the playoffs are pricey, and most brands can only afford to take a small bite out of the apple, or decide to pass and fire up a partnership at other peak times during the season. When you understand myriad factors that go into marketing an athlete like LeBron, it can be shortsighted to criticize these brands for their level of activity.

On the other side of the equation, imagine for a moment that you were to wake up tomorrow morning as LeBron's lead marketing representative, tasked with managing his off the court brand. Firstly, you’d need to take inventory of his current brand portfolio, looking at open categories (auto, watches, etc.) and League sponsors (or their competitors) to see if there were any additional brands worth considering. You'd probably explore emerging technologies, LeBron’s favorite lifestyle brands, social platforms and new ventures that were offering equity in their start-ups. You'd also want to look overseas to see if there were any other opportunities in China, or South America leading up to the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics.

That exercise would most likely lead you to a handful of key guardrails that would inform your approach:

+ You’d be saying "no thanks" A LOT. LeBron is the proverbial 98-foot yacht of endorsements. Some brands just don’t have the capacity to steer a vessel of that level. This is an exclusive club. Serious bidders need only apply.

+ Focus on quality vs. quantity. The logos on your partner page should be well known, diversified and represent multi-year relationships.

+ Partner with brands that share the same values and vision, and ultimately put your client in a position where their personal brand can be amplified and reinforced (see Samsung’s LBJ campaign from 2012).  

+ LeBron is approaching the midway mark of his playing career and there will be plenty of time for new and emerging categories. His portfolio will evolve as the seasons unfold, but maintaining a strategic, disciplined approach will ensure he’s partnering with the right brands at the right time.

While there are many options for LeBron and his marketing team, if you put yourself in his size 16 shoes for a moment, I think you'll agree that the game plan they are running is solid, thorough, and strategic. It’s not the number of TV spots playing during primetime, but the quality of the foundational partnerships that dictate the final score. 

Patience is a virtue, especially for a good king.

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