Co.Design

Unpacking The Land Mines Of Race And Religion, To Create The Jeremy Lin Brand

A look at some clever ad history, via Nike and Gatorade, shows how you can nod at race and religion without turning people off.

The hype has faded into a murmur. But even though Linsanity now seems quaint, Jeremy Lin has proven himself quite nicely, thank you. The Knicks are winning again, and last night, he poured in 18 points and 10 assists. He’s averaging 15 and 6. Those would all be very good numbers for a seasoned, multi-millionaire pro.

The point is, Jeremy Lin is steadily proving that he really does belong in the pantheon of starting NBA point guards--a job that only 30 men in the world hold. He really is poised to become a star. So one big land mine remains live: How do you market a crossover player who touches on the nerves of race and religion as Jeremy Lin does?

In the last few weeks, Jeremy Lin’s agent, Robert Montgomery, has reportedly fielded over 1,000 sponsorship requests, from watchmakers to wireless phone companies. Finally, he announced that they’d settled on a tentative start, with an international deal with Volvo. Before that, his only sponsor was Nike. The marketing whizzes there signed him to a three-year deal back in 2010 when he entered the league. As to what motivated the shoe giant to invest so early in Lin, Nike spokesman Brian Strong will only say that its marketing executives were attracted to Lin from a “talent perspective.”

Huh? You mean race didn’t play any factor in signing an undrafted free agent from Harvard?

Nike either had a crystal ball, or they took a flier on a rookie with international marketing potential and the gamble just happened to pay off a few days before Lin was going to get cut by the New York Knicks. Regardless, Nike locked Lin in first. Now the hard part: telling Lin’s story in a way that weaves together Nike’s brand image with Lin’s many selling points. It’s not hard to advertise an underdog story--everyone likes that--but race and religion can be a bit trickier. Does Nike build a campaign around Lin’s race and look to reach a new basketball audience? Do they ignore his religion, one of the conversational topics a person is supposed to keep to himself?

Gatorade’s "Evolve" campaign, which very subtly touched on the role of blacks in sports.

“We won’t get into the specifics of exactly what is potentially to come with him, but I think we are really looking forward to ways to celebrate the inspiration that he has become to fans casual and core alike,” Strong says of how Nike might target its campaign. “People are motivated by that season-plus journey to get where he is now and we will continue to explore that.” This open-ended statement could mean practically anything including that Nike is still deciding what it will do, but it does hint that Nike looks at Lin as a crossover ambassador of the sort that basketball rarely has these days. So how do they handle race and religion without alienating a wider audience?

“Nike will know exactly how to do it because they have dealt with so many different types of athletes over the years,” says Jimmy Smith, the chairman of Amusement Park, a media branding company. “There is no better company in the world to promote you than Nike, not only to build their brand but to build your own brand.” Smith knows this better than most. He has worked at ad agencies Wieden + Kennedy and TBWA/Chiat/Day, where he created commercials for Nike and Gatorade. Whereas a number of marketing executives we spoke with dismissed Lin’s race as a factor in his branding, Smith says the smartest thing Nike, or any future sponsors, can do is not ignore that it is part of the package. As Smith points out, “Even Stevie Wonder knows that Lin is Asian.”

While at TBWA/Chiat/Day, Smith was in a similar position of incorporating a reality about race into a commercial. He created the “Evolve” campaign for Gatorade that had the underlying message: Sports are better today because African Americans play the games. Everyone knows this is true, but the publicly traded company couldn’t say that so overtly. So Smith opened the commercial with black and white images of peach baskets and wooden racquets and water, then flashed forward to today where Michael Jordan is dunking and Serena Williams is pounding a backhand and athletes are drinking Gatorade. The 1-minute spot was ushered along by a catchy, old timey tune that kept repeating the same line, “If you want a revolution, the only solution, evolve.” In the ad, viewers clearly saw how antiquated sports might still be if it weren’t for Jordan or Williams or any number of other black athletes.

The same is true with Lin and the NBA. Even though the league has players from all over the world, they have almost none from Asia. If a company wants to use his race as its campaign anchor, all they need to show is how the NBA is better off today because of a 6-foot-3 Taiwanese-American who can ball. A few shots of Lin driving the lane, dunking, and lobbing alley oops against opponents of all backgrounds should do the trick of highlighting his athleticism.

While race is a sensitive issue, religion can be seen as inaccessible and boring. Smith broached these concerns when he created the Nike commercial “Book of Dimes” starring Lebron James. Smith met Lebron, then an 18-year-old, and started asking him how he became so good. No matter how Smith phrased the question, James kept replying, “I don’t know. It just happened.” until Lebron finally got frustrated and said, “I don’t know man. God just blessed me.” The light went on in Smith’s head and he developed the commercial around basketball as religion, and the gym as the church.

Nike’s "Book of Dimes" spot, which subtly mentions religion.
The late Bernie Mac, acting as the preacher, stood at a podium, read from the playbook of King James and introduced the “Chosen One”--James--who ran through the aisle and dunked a basketball while a gospel choir sang in the background. The ad was funny (Mac asked the congregation: Can I get a lay up?) and self-deprecating (The choir repeated the same refrain: “Pass! Pass! Pass!”), and that put a hip spin on the notion of a quiet and peaceful church service. Whether or not people agreed with the ad’s sentiments that Lebron was basketball’s savior in the post-Jordan era, it remained true to its main character. Lebron has been seen as this larger than life figure ever since he entered the NBA.

Though Lin would likely approach this kind of campaign with more humility than Lebron, the subject of his religion doesn’t have to be uncool because Lin has proven that his Christian faith has been very cool for him. Just the other day at a press conference, Lin described his ascension as a “miracle.” That sounds like a good jumping off point for a campaign.

As long as brands are willing to tell the truth, they don’t have to dance through the subjects of Lin’s race and religion. It’s only when an ad campaign tries to run from the truth that is gets itself in trouble.

[Image: Jim McIsaac/Getty]

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