are beats good headphones Would LeBron James have made a great ‘Mad Men’ character
CLEVELAND, Ohio LeBron James and the Cavaliers play Friday in New York, where once last season James filmed a car commercial in 90 seconds.
In New York and in James’ world are where the unbelievable is possible. James, popping onto West 34th Street, just a few blocks from Madison Avenue, to tape a commercial for Kia in less than two minutes? Why not?
James is truly among the modern day Mad Men. At age 30, the $44 million he earns annually through endorsements is the fourth highest among any athlete in the world, according to Forbes.
As James descends once again upon the advertising capital of the world, we pause to consider some of James’ most complex, and at times, messy marketing partnerships. Like the characters in a Matthew Weiner drama, James’ marketing portfolio is complicated, dotted with conflict and break ups, power plays and loyalty.
He occasionally says things that would not seem to be in lockstep with a company he represents. But as crazy as it sounds, James’ periodic missteps may actually build, rather than tear down, his believability as a spokesman.
“The interesting challenge for brands right now, in this recent section of current digital age, they’ve lost a lot of control of their brands,” said Paul Swangard, a sports marketing expert at the University of Oregon.
“Almost as the outcome of this reality, the endorsers have the ability now to not have to toe the party line,” Swangard said. “Brands have begun to appreciate those associations with endorsers who are willing to be critics as much as they are proponents. In a sense, the days of being so squeaky clean in endorsing the product is beginning to lose its credibility.”
Some examples to consider for James, presented at first without deeper context:
He made it pretty clear in February he didn’t eat McDonald’s any more. He and the fast food giant have since mutually ended their partnership.
On the Tonight Show, James told Jimmy Fallon his children ask for “iPads and iPods.” But he’s a spokesman for Samsung.
A Kia “ambassador” as the pitchman for the Kia K9000, James is often seen riding in a Mercedes, including for his arrival to his Akron movie premiere of Trainwreck last summer.
James drinks Gatorade on the bench, but he endorses Powerade.
James didn’t like the fit of Nike’s LeBron 11 basketball shoe in 2013, and wouldn’t wear them.
What these instances meant to the companies is unknown. Kia, McDonald’s and Samsung all declined to comment for this story. Nike and Coke remain two of James’ strongest, most visible partners, and James’ camp insists the end of his relationship with McDonald’s was related solely to his growing ownership stake and spokesman role with Blaze Pizza.
“He has much more power in that environment today,” Swangard said. “I think he has less risk because he has less downside.
“LeBron remains a signature asset for lots of what I would describe as non endemic brands. He’s culturally relevant, he in some cases polarizes, he remains incredibly relevant with crossover appeal.”
James’ position of enormous wealth and influence allowed him to increase his ownership in Blaze Pizza, a growing fast food chain of pizza restaurants last month. He now owns more than 10 percent of the company.
So when he promotes Blaze on, say, Twitter, where James has more than 24 million followers, he’s lending his voice to a company he’s already endorsed with his financial investment. Thanks for the hospitality guys.
“Do you think anyone believes Blake Griffin drives a Kia, or Tiger (Woods) a Buick? Authenticity matters, but it comes in any forms. In LeBron’s case, you have a world class athlete endorsing a pizza chain. We know he’s not eating there every day or even very often, but he has equity in the company, so he believes in it.”
A source with direct knowledge of James’ business dealings insists the sole reason James didn’t continue his relationship with McDonald’s was because of Blaze. He couldn’t rightly endorse two fast food chains.
But a similar apparent conflict of interest exists with two of James’ other partnerships, Samsung and Apple.
For years, James has pitched Samsung’s smart phones, and by proxy the company’s tablet computers. James was also an original investor in Beats by Dre headphones, which in 2014 was acquired by Apple. James made a reported $30 million off the deal, and continues to cut commercials for the headphones even though Beats is now under the corporate umbrella of Samsung’s top competitor.
During the NBA Finals, James gave each teammate an Apple Watch, delivered by Apple executives at the team hotel in San Francisco. His teammates also receive Samsung products from James, too, but the timing of the Apple Watch during the height of the NBA season was at minimum inconvenient for Samsung.
And as James and Fallon were goofing off on the Tonight Show in July, where James was visiting to promote his movie, he said his children “ask for iPads and iPods” before catching himself and adding: “and Samsung tablets and Samsung, all, everything.”
“He is finding it increasingly hard to separate both his business interest and his consumer interests in Apple from his contractual arrangement with Samsung,” said Sangard, the University of Oregon expert who also works as a consultant. “Where he is in his career portfolio, with the kinds of brands he enjoys relationship with, I would counsel him he’d be much better off finding those natural and sustainable lanes. The sooner he steps away from Samsung, the easier it will be for him to try to avoid this kind of conflict.”
To which a source close to James replied: “There are millions of people in the world who use Samsung phones and listen to Beats.”