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Jeremy Lin’s Most Marketable Magic: He’s All Things, To All People

Far from being simply a racial icon, Jeremy Lin has an appeal unlike that of any pro athlete today: Universal relatability.

Jeremy Lin’s Most Marketable Magic: He’s All Things, To All People
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There’s been a mad rush to cash in on the Jeremy Lin phenomenon, from the regrettable "Lin-sanity" Ben & Jerry’s flavor featuring lychee honey swirls and fortune cookies, to Nike’s first Lin branded shoe. But likewise, customers have been racing to own a piece of Lin as well.

In the past two weeks, Modell’s, the sporting goods company with 150 stores across New York state, has ordered and sold out three rush shipments of $59 Jeremy Lin jerseys and $36 "Linsanity" T-shirts—with each shipment totaling around 7,000 items. Which is crazy—a quantity that they’d normally only order if the Jets or Giants were in the Super Bowl. "Our managers were telling us they were selling it right out of the boxes," Modell’s buyer, Charles Castaneda, said of the first shipments. "Customers weren’t just taking one, they were taking 5, 10, 15." So Modell’s went all in and ordered another 168,000 pieces of Lin merchandise. "We decided to buy all we could of what was out there and put it all on this one person," said Castaneda. Betting the farm has paid off handsomely for Modell’s.

It’s quickly become clear that Lin is the perfect sales vehicle simply because he represents so many things to so many people.

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For some, he’s the economics geek showing up the jocks. Or the Cinderella story made real, who couch-surfed at his brother’s place. Or the pioneer, a la Jackie Robinson, who has hit shots with the din of ethnic slurs in his ears. Or the humble hero, praising teammates and coaches. Or the antidote to the spoiled star athelete we’ve all been fed for so long. Or some other combination of all of the above.

Few athletes possess such a polymorphous quality. And ultimately, it might make Lin more marketable than almost all of the basketball stars that have preceded him. "They say in the world of gems, the more facets the greater the design," says Doug Scott, the CEO of Ogilvy Entertainment. "The fact that Jeremy has so many facets is a tremendous plus for him. The more relatable that he is, the better for the brand over time."

At the Modell’s in Times Square last week, where the Giants Super Bowl merchandise had been pushed to the back and replaced by racks of Knicks #17 gear, the kaleidoscope of views on the Jeremy Lin phenomenon was on full display. Teri, who works in retail management and was in town from Seattle on a business trip, picked up two shirts and two jerseys for her sons, ages 17 and 24. "They have gone berserk for the Cinderella story of Jeremy Lin," she said. Teri too has been swept up by Lin’s aura. "He comes out of Harvard and isn’t well known and then all of a sudden is taking Kobe to the hole," she said. "I have seen his humility, how he sincerely acknowledges his team, and seems to play with a lot of brains." In those few words Teri managed to check off four different takes on the Lin phenomenon.

It might be that with Jeremy Lin, the NBA—with its stagnant audience and image problems—may have found an ideal, squeaky-clean star for bringing new fans to the sport. Alex, an attorney, also stopped in to pick up gifts for his two sons, ages 11 and 13. When asked if they are basketball fans, Alex replied, "Now they are." Alex wasn’t a huge basketball fan either, but his wife explained Lin’s Rudy-esque rise, and Alex appreciated it, especially in a market like New York where it is so tough to break through. Lin’s character only made him more appealing. "He is very humble in his interviews, puts his team first, and says all of the right things," noted Alex.

And ultimately, Lin offers something that few sports stars ever manage, in the age of middle-school recruiting and 15 year olds referring to themselves in the third person: genuine surprise. Will, an accountant, knew of Lin before most. A University of Connecticut grad, Will had seen Lin stomp all over the Huskies on a number of occasions. "I didn’t know if he would be an NBA threat, but I must have underestimated him," said Will. "He was drilling shots all over the place. It was crazy." Will was going to a game the following week with his buddy and both were gearing up.

It’s for all those reasons that the Jeremy Lin brand might not follow the stereotypical path of shoe/sports-drink/fast-food endorsements—and the bland, ready-made image that results. To capitalize on the unique attributes of the Lin character Bible, Scott would brand him a little differently. "I would take him and go against the norm of marketing an NBA player," says Scott, who would encourage Lin to look beyond the obvious.

Scott compares Lin’s crossover appeal to that of skateboarder Rob Dyrdek who built up his reputation in skateboarding circles and then parlayed his creative personality into a number of hit shows at MTV, including the 2006 reality series "Rob and Big." Dyrdek now has a lifestyle business in the neighborhood of $50 million and sells everything from socks to body spray to action figures to mugs. "There is a franchise mentality about what Rob was able to build with the persona attached to skateboard fans," says Scott. He sees the same potential for Jeremy Lin.

Lin-branded couches, anyone?

This is the first installment in a two-part story on the marketing of Jeremy Lin. The second installment will cover the tricky role that race places in the branding of Jeremy Lin.

[Top Images: Mike Ehrmann and Mark Ralston/Getty]