Some say Michael Jordan helped make Nike and others say Nike helped make Michael Jordan. I say it was a little of both.
I remember the first Nike commercial with Michael Jordan flying through the air in slow motion from the foul line, his right arm high above him holding the ball like the statue of Liberty holding her torch, then as he hovered over the rim, he slammed the ball through the net for the most amazing dunk I ever saw. Holy s#$%. Air Jordan was born. I remember watching that over and over again saying to myself, “How in the hell does he do that?”
The subtle answer from Nike is simple. Wear our shoes. Yep, wear Nike shoes and you can fly like Michael. Even though I’m a marketing guy, I bought into their message. I figured if one of the greatest basketball players of all time wears Nike, then a weekend warrior like me should do the same. Cha-ching. $$$$. Another sale for Nike.
Does Celebrity Marketing work? It does for me from both sides, as a consumer and as amarketer. When I was the head of marketing for Gold’s Gym from 1985 to 2005, I used my celebrity contacts as a means to help build that brand. I didn’t have as big a budget as my competitors so I had to out think them.
I knew the power of PR. I knew the power of product endorsement. Living in Los Angeles we have our share of celebrities. Many would come into the famous Gold’s Gym in Venice, “The Mecca of Bodybuilding” as it was called. I took advantage of that celebrity pool as well as my own celebrity friends from my showbiz background. I gave them all free memberships. One year at a time. No lifetime memberships. I gave their significant others memberships too. Thanks to my famous football legend friend, Lyle Alzado, I learned to give their significant others only three month passes. Celebrities usually stay celebrities. Their significant others change like, well, like… celebrity’s significant others. I knew where my loyalty was.
Anyway, what I learned quickly is that if you take care of celebrities, they will take care of you. Armed with free memberships and Gold’s Gym sportswear, I gladly gave our celebrity members and their significant others free gifts. Yes, they could afford everything I gave them, but they’re just like us, they appreciate a free gift.
So, for those radio DJ’s, television sportscasters, sports athletes and movie stars who I gave memberships to, guess what, their appreciation would hit the public airways in ways I could never afford. One day I hear our popular DJ on the air saying he trains at Gold’s, the next day I see Carl Weathers who played Apollo Creed in the Rocky movies, wearing a Gold’s Gym t-shirt on a promo for Saturday Night Live. Then in the movie, White Men Can’t Jump there’s Wesley Snipes wearing a Gold’s Gym tank top. In Men in Black, Will Smith shows his Gold’s Gym VIP membership card. Bingo, what a concept. Be nice to someone, they will be nice to you back.
I know what you’re thinking, I don’t live in LA, and I have no celebrities around me. Oh contraire. Every city has a high school or college. Comp the athletic director or coach. Tell them you want to be the official gym to their schools and that you have a special rate for their sports teams. Support or sponsor them and they will support you. Take care of your veterans who have put their life on the line for all our businesses. Join your Chamber of Commerce; offer your gym as a place for your monthly luncheons. Donate your old equipment to your local fire and police departments. Pretty soon, you’ll see a story on your local news showing a Police captain explaining how his team is in better shape thanks to generous community leaders like yourself. True story.
A Russian defector walked into Gold’s Gym Venice back in the early 90’s. He said he wanted to see two things: Washington D.C. and Gold’s Gym Venice. I welcomed him and gave him a free membership. Boy, was he happy. The next thing I know one of the sportscasters that I comped, asked me to let him know if there were any newsworthy things happening in our gym. “How does a story about a Russian defector sound to you?” I asked. Before I knew it, a camera crew was in our gym filming our new Russian member Oleg working out. Great publicity and a great win/win for everyone.
I also learned that there were many celebrities in our gym that weren’t really celebrities by the standard definition, but they were celebrities in the making. There was a man in a wheel chair who was determined to walk. Great news story, especially when he stood up and walked out of his chair forever. We even used him in one of our print ads.
An 84-year-old woman, who never lifted weights before, came into train at one of our gyms. The doctors told her it was a waste of time. She trained anyway. She later got the world record in the bench press in the Senior Olympics. She’s won over 50 Gold Medals so far. We made her a celebrity and those news stories continued to make us one too. I learned that radio and television needed content 24/7/365. I gave it to them.
When I first started at Gold’s in 1985 I sent out flyers to all the casting agencies in Los Angeles. I offered our gym as a film location for TV shows, movies and commercials. I also told the casting agencies if they needed the next Arnold or Stallone we had them here. When they would cast people out of our gym for movies, TV shows and commercials, they asked me what our fee was. I simply said, “It’s a free service, but if you could put a Gold’s Gym shirt on them, I would appreciate it.” They gladly did as I entered the world of Product Placement.
I also contacted all the fitness magazines and local newspapers to let them know they could film there as well, and that we were their resource for health and fitness. Camera crews and still photographers became a mainstay at Gold’s. We became the most photographed gym in the world. The brand really started to grow from its exposure in all media just because we provided a service to them.
So, for me and many others, celebrity marketing works. Does it ever backfire? It can, if your celebrity has fallen from grace (see Tiger Woods). Even though some of his sponsors abandoned him, companies like Nike stayed loyal. It’s one of those chances you take when you play the celebrity game. But, you can bet when Nike thought about their most famous celebrity’s downfall, the good far outweighed the bad for them.
As my parents taught me, you’re judged by the friends you keep. I guess you can say the same about partners or sponsorships. But, no matter what Tiger does off the course, that guy can play golf! And, he’s proven that he’s better than anyone at that game. You may not see the Nike Swoosh when you’re in bed with him, but on the golf course, you see that logo on his shirt and on his hat front and center. He is Nike. And Nike is Tiger. From Michael Jordan to Tiger Woods, Nike is synonymous with superstar athletes. Whether they are kicking ass, or…ah, never mind. They are a force to be reckoned with. The bottom line is that Nike is serious sportswear and footwear! We get that message loud and clear.
Celebrities are used to bring credibility and coolness to a brand. If you sell sugar-water and name it Coke, you have to be a genius to make us buy it. We all know it’s not the greatest thing for us, but it is the “Real Thing” as one of their taglines told us. Then they take a celebrity superstar like Mean Joe Greene, put him with a cute little kid and you have one very cool commercial. Since 1979 that TV spot gets played on every Superbowl show as the all-time favorite commercial.
Trying to add some “cool” to their brand, McDonald’s used celebrities Michael Jordan and Larry Bird back in 1993 in their “Nothing but net” commercial. 17 years later McDonald’s recreated that spot using basketball greats Dwight Howard and Lebron James. We love those commercials and therefore we love McDonald’s.
Can you be successful without using celebrities? (see Apple). Their celebrities are their innovative products and services that you can experience in any one of their 300 Apple stores throughout the world. And, Apple products pop up everywhere in movies and TV shows as we point to them and say, “Hey, that guy has an iPhone! Cool!”