SBJ/November 26 - December 2, 2001/Marketingsponsorship

NBA’s touch is again just right

The NBA has consistently led the major sports leagues in its approach to building brand equity through in-game advertising.

Starting more than a decade ago, the league created the aura of its games as being the place to be. With such features as courtside-seated celebrities crowing that "NBA action is fan-tastic," to Bill Murray's hilarious pursuit of his dream to become an NBA player, to the sophisticated NBA star power of the more recent "I love this game" work, the NBA has set the standard against which other leagues must measure their efforts.

Led by Commissioner David Stern, one of the smartest, most intuitive marketers — not just in sports but in any business — the league has retained its relevance by keeping its finger firmly on the pulse of popular culture and by gauging the mood of its audience.

The newest NBA advertising is no exception. In the face of the events of Sept. 11, the league is running a "Heroes" campaign, with NBA stars from virtually every team professing their appreciation to America's everyday heroes.

It's a winning effort.

The campaign is a flag-waving, patriotism-stirring effort to honor America's finest. No league has committed more to a star-building advertising strategy, giving fans a chance to get to know the biggest names in the game, and "Heroes" is no exception. Anchored by seven national commercials, each with a different NBA star, and supported by more than 20 additional spots with local stars featured on local team telecasts, the creative approach is powerful.

In each 30-second spot, set to Enrique Iglesias' love song/patriotic anthem "Hero," an NBA star sits before a flag and speaks to the camera. The message is straightforward as photos of the Sept. 11 tragedy, funerals, families and soldiers and of people with hand-drawn signs of support for firefighters and police take over the screen:

"We know who the heroes are," the player says. "The ones who in a time of need say, 'Come with me. It will be all right': a fireman, a policeman, a soldier. They are our fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters. We know who the heroes are."

Or, in another spot: "A hero is someone who is strong and determined, courageous and dedicated. Someone who is loyal to their family and friends, and known for their kindness to strangers. They are defined by the spirit of their convictions and the selflessness of their actions. They are our heroes."

Iglesias' musical chorus, "I can be your hero," comes up, over graphics of a flag ribbon, small NBA and the NBA players logos and the words "The NBA and its Players are proud to salute our heroes."

A little heavy-handed, sure, but undeniably powerful stuff.

In his "I am not a role model" Nike spot, Charles Barkley laid blame on parents to goad them into getting involved with their kids. In these NBA spots, the message is once again "I am not a role model." And in a self-effacing way, it sets everyday American heroes on a pedestal as our role models. (Self-effacing NBA stars? My world doesn't make sense anymore!) Smart.

"Heroes" represents an opportunity for the NBA to try to communicate the integrity and community-mindedness of its players to fans locally and nationally as it introduces new stars such as Shane Battier to Memphis and Elton Brand to Los Angeles. The campaign also offers a chance to character-build some players who have had off-court PR issues.

The commercials were produced by the NBA's in-house creative team at NBA Entertainment, which handles all league-related advertising.

Further demonstrating its marketing flexibility and savvy, the league is prepared to return its core branding efforts to the airwaves later this year, but only if it judges the popular mood to signal its appropriateness.

I suspect that the "Heroes" campaign will not go away but will evolve to be one of the core community-minded advertising thrusts of the NBA indefinitely.

James H. Harris (jim@thoughtstep.com) is CEO of the Chicago-based strategic marketing consultancy ThoughtStep Inc.

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