SBJ/Feb. 17-23, 2014/Champions

To ‘Be Like Mike,’ Gatorade had to poach Michael Jordan from Coke

Michael Jordan’s 23-year relationship with Gatorade has been around so long and supported by such artful advertising that most people forget what was at the heart of the deal: Gatorade stole Jordan from Coke.

There are dozens of stories about how Gatorade snatched Jordan from Coca-Cola. Everyone agrees on the motivating force: MJ was one of dozens of stars in Coke’s constellation of endorsers. Gatorade offered Jordan an average of $1.4 million a year over a decade to be Gatorade’s first and only endorser.

“The [Coke] creative wasn’t very imaginative, and Michael was one of 30 or so Coke endorsers,” said David Falk, then Jordan’s agent.

Gatorade and Schmidt (above, far left) signed Jordan in 1991 and quickly filmed the iconic “Be Like Mike” campaign (below).
Photos: COURTESY OF BILL SCHMIDT
When it came time to bid, Jordan and Falk decided to go with a sealed-bid process. Falk said he told both sides he wanted a 10-year deal at seven figures per year. Gatorade owner Quaker Oats made an offer that fit those parameters. Coke’s five-year offer did not, according to Falk.

“They had Elton John and Whitney Houston making millions,” he said. “I don’t understand why they wouldn’t pay Michael the same.”

After losing the sealed-bid auction, Coke came back with more money
and a 10-year offer, according to former Quaker Oats President Phil Marineau.

“To their credit, Falk said a deal was a deal,” he recalled.

The formula of seven figures a year over 10 years became a template for many future Jordan deals.

Marineau insisted that the Jordan-Gatorade relationship actually began years earlier, when Gatorade got courtside seats next to the Bulls bench in the old Chicago Stadium. It wasn’t long before “Schmoozemaster Schmidt” was sending cases of Gatorade to Jordan’s home.

“I wanted Michael ever since I watched him hit the winning shot in the 1982 NCAA final,” Schmidt said.

Negotiations with Falk started during the 1991 NBA All-Star Game in Charlotte. Gatorade was already doubling its business year after year. Adding Jordan, who eventually became the world’s most popular athlete, supercharged its marketing efforts at home and abroad.

“Jordan got us instant credibility in countries where they had no idea what a sports drink was, and that it cost four times as much as water,” Marineau said. “We saw some competition coming and the only way they could challenge us was with a slew of athlete endorsers, so we got the endorser.”

However, Gatorade ad agency Bayer Bess Vanderwarker had to create a campaign worthy of Quaker’s Jordan investment. Eventually, it crafted “Be Like Mike,” one of the most memorable and effective campaigns in the history of sports marketing. But there were some bumps in the road during the creative process, which started just after that February 1991 All-Star Game and ended with an ad in August that became a standard-bearer.

BBV Creative Director Bernie Pitzel had recently seen Disney’s “Jungle Book” with his 5-year-old, and the movie became the inspiration for the campaign. Pitzel mixed some Jordan footage from Nike ads with the song “I Want to Be Like You.” The sample ad ended with a message that read, “Be Like Mike. Drink Gatorade.”

Steve Seyferth, then running the Gatorade account for BBV, recalls high-fives being exchanged when the sample creative was first shown to Gatorade marketers. Schmidt loved it immediately and promised to check with Jordan on whether it was permissible to call him “Mike” instead of the usual Michael.

Everyone loved it but Disney, which asked for $1 million to license the song.

Meanwhile, Jordan’s popularity blossomed, as the Bulls won their first NBA championship in June and MJ took home the NBA scoring title as well as both the regular-season and playoff MVP awards.

By the time the agency began shooting in July, some assistance from Falk helped reduce Disney’s asking price to $250,000 — with the provision that the “Be Like Mike” slogan be eliminated. Seyferth remembers getting this news on a golf course with Schmidt. As soon as he repeated the offer, both men shook their heads no.

“‘Be Like Mike’” made the campaign, not the music,” Seyferth said.

Shortly thereafter, Pitzel sat down at Avanzare, his favorite Chicago watering hole, and penned the lyrics for what became “Be Like Mike” on a cocktail napkin. BBV got the catchy Caribbean tune from a commercial music house. “Be Like Mike” launched Aug. 8, 1991.

“Everyone knew about Nike and Jordan,” Schmidt said. “We wanted consumers to identify Gatorade and Jordan, right after Nike, and within a few months we accomplished that.”

As for Coke?

“I still can’t believe they didn’t have right of first refusal,” Schmidt says more than 20 years later.

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