SBJ/Dec. 20-26, 2010/This Week's Issue

NBA on Christmas Day has a Super Bowl feel for T-Mobile

Dwyane Wade is featured again as part of
T-Mobile's NBA campaign.

On the 12th floor of a trendy downtown Miami hotel, 10 men and women are crammed into a bedroom, intently focused on two video monitors showing what’s going on between a man and a woman in a bathroom down the hall. But this is no voyeuristic exercise: The man in the bathroom is accustomed to people watching him perform. It’s Dwyane Wade, the Miami Heat guard, who is one of the NBA’s most popular players. Wade, a T-Mobile endorser since 2006, is shooting one of two commercials the brand will debut this week on the league’s annual spate of Christmas Day contests — five games in 13 hours on ABC and ESPN. The hoops marathon has become a bellwether for the league — because of the holiday it attracts an inordinate amount of casual fans, and for many, it marks the unofficial start of the NBA season. More recently, it has become a launching pad for ad campaigns, a December-style Super Bowl.

“The pressure isn’t quite at Super Bowl level,” said Peter DeLuca, an ad veteran who joined T-Mobile as vice president of advertising so recently that this is just his second ad shoot for the company. “This work I knew was good the minute I saw the story boards, but Christmas makes it more of an event, and our campaign has been so popular, people expect us to top ourselves every time out.”

One way T-Mobile is trying to over-deliver is by adding director Spike Lee to the effective mix of Wade and Charles Barkley. Lee will add star power with a cameo role in one of the ads, as T-Mobile, the fourth-largest wireless carrier in the U.S., tries to grab consumers’ attention in a category where every brand spends well in excess of its market share. Rival Verizon is the top spender in advertising and AT&T isn’t far behind. While those brands have multiple sports sponsorships, T-Mobile relies on the NBA.

“We compete in a really noisy category,” said Mike Belcher, T-Mobile’s vice president of sponsorships and events, “and the NBA allows us to have a disproportionate share of voice. We certainly can’t outspend our competition, so you have got to find places where we can win, and we look at the NBA and its fans like a [consumer] segment.”

DeLuca said most of the scripts of the latest creative were in by late summer, but with some changes at the top, including the installation of new CEO Philipp Humm in November, there was some delay to ensure that strategy and creative meshed. As T-Mobile solidified its claim as the country’s largest 4G network, the strategy was clear: While others sold the capabilities of phones, T-Mobile would use its NBA ties to market the network.

Barkley's new ad, filmed at Miami's airport, is
a tribute to the speed of communication.

In the "really noisy category" of wireless,
T-Mobile relies on its deal with the NBA.

“Sports fans are some of our heaviest users,” said DeLuca. “It really matters to them to get game information or video highlights first, and we are trying to show they have it all in one hand with our network. So it’s a brand statement and a technology statement, with the NBA as a platform to add relevance.”

Networks are all about speed, and the ads rely on the velocity of information in an age where the news cycle never stops to illustrate the speeds at which T-Mobile’s 4G networks operate. Wade’s spot shows him accidently locked in a hotel bathroom. Seeking a rescue, he posts “Get me out of here” on a social media site, but his plea is misinterpreted as a trade demand. Rumors abound among well-connected NBA fans, like Barkley and Lee, who offers to give Wade his apartment if he moves to New York and plays for the Knicks. Video chat via 4G escalates the rumors, and a maid cleaning Wade’s hotel room sees them on TV — before finding and freeing him from the bathroom. “You’ve got some explaining to do,” she tells him in a scene that took take after take until T-Mobile and the creatives from agency Publicis, Seattle, were satisfied that her reactions were realistic.

The next day it was off to a deserted section of Miami International Airport to film Barkley’s latest ad, another tribute to the volatile mix of viral information flow and high-speed communication. In the case of the famously loquacious Barkley, one of his verbal jabs is used as the basis for a music mix that becomes a runaway hit and gains national prominence, via the 4G network, of course. Barkley is unaware of it all until he is bombarded by responses on his smartphone, including Wade congratulating him on his exploding musical fame.

The few actual passengers in the airport area don’t seem to notice much, but looking closely, some notice the lineup on the moving sidewalk includes Lee, huddling with camera, lights and sound crew, and Barkley, who, even having lost 40 pounds, is large enough to attract attention wherever he is.

Neither Barkley nor Marc Perman, his longtime marketing agent, can guess how many ads he has done since 1984, his rookie year in the NBA. “T-Mobile is the only time I feel pressure when I’m making a commercial, because it has been recognized as good work,” Barkley said, resting in his trailer during a break in the shoot. “Clearly, it’s gonna work for me, because I’m getting paid. But I want it to work for T-Mobile. People recite the T-Mobile lines back to me all the time, so I know it’s working.”

A supporting digital campaign, launching simultaneously on sports sites, has NBA fans engaged in trash talking using 4G smart video chatting. “The whole idea is that you can interact with the NBA as it happens, because of the speed and size of our network,” said Melinda McCrocklin, senior manager, advertising and brand integration at T-Mobile. “That’s our message here.”

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