Celebrity and athlete endorsements are without question some of the most useful marketing tools that a brand can use. The way fans idolize their favorite athletes allows brands to capture those positive feelings by using those athletes to endorse their products. With many products that use athlete endorsers, the suggestion that the average person can jump higher or run faster by using a particular product makes the endorsement all the more powerful.
While there are literally hundreds if not thousands of brands that have partnered with athletes over the years, there are several products and campaigns that have stuck with us through the years. These particular brands managed to use their athlete endorsers to not only help sell products at that moment in time, but to
also create a lasting image that garnered positive feelings for that brand long after that commercial or campaign had been shelved.
Today, we’re going to take a look at a handful of those campaigns, and what common themes they utilized to make their ad campaigns iconic, much like their spokesmen.
MEAN JOE GREEN DRINKS COKE
This commercial debuted during the 1980 Super Bowl, and ever since then, it has ended up near the top of every list of the best Super Bowl commercials ever. Besides using an iconic pitchman like Mean Joe Green, the real key here is the juxtaposition of the tough football player and the young generous boy. The message here is pretty strong – the implication is that drinking a Coke can improve anyone’s mood – as Mean Joe becomes a nice guy after drinking the Coke. While the jingle itself isn’t that catchy, the end catchphrase of “Have a Coke and a Smile” works because it’s easy to remember, and fits into everyday conversations. But what really sells this commercial is the young boy’s reaction when Mean Joe goes from hard-ass football player to a giving soul. His face lights up, and we get the secondary catchphrase, “Thanks Mean Joe!” That’s the lasting image from this commercial – and over 30 years later it still gets replayed every February when everyone is talking about Super Bowl commercials. For that, this campaign ranks among the best ever.
TIGER WOODS GOLF – NIKE
At the end of the millennium, no question existed as to who was the best golfer in the world–Tiger Woods. He was in the process of obliterating the course record at the Masters and was already anointed as the one who would pass Jack Nicklaus, even though he had only won a few majors at that point. Nike had launched its entire golf product line by partnering with Woods, and instantly gained credibility in the market. And while that probably would have happened regardless of their ad campaign, one commercial served as the catalyst for Nike Golf, and Tiger Woods.
Unlike the other campaigns on this list, there was no catchy jingle, no catchphrase, nor any additional celebrities. Instead, it consisted of Tiger Woods bouncing a ball on his golf club without it hitting the ground, using the club to toss the ball into the air, and then taking a half golf swing and crushing the ball into the distance. The message was what we already knew; that there were things Tiger Woods could do on a golf course that nobody else was capable of. The key was that you had to see it to believe it, so people made a point to see it.
The other advantage this campaign had over others was that it happened in the internet era. While YouTube wasn’t in place, this ad and campaign still spread like wildfire. And it’s still a popular view today, with almost 1.8 million hits on YouTube. It’s so popular that the bloopers from that commercial shoot have over 1.1 million views. It’s easily the most popular golf ad ever and certainly ranks in the Top 5 of most powerful sports endorsement campaigns ever too.
ITS GOTTA BE THE SHOES – NIKE AIR JORDAN
While some of the other campaigns Michael Jordan has been involved with may have been more memorable, he’s still best known as the original, and really the only, spokesman for Nike’s Air Jordan Brand. Starting in the mid-80’s, Jordan was synonymous with basketball, dunking, and Nike. While there were many great commercials involving Jordan, the signature campaign included Jordan and a loud, scrawny character named Mars Blackmon, played by rising director and actor Spike Lee.
While Jordan dribbled, shot and dunked, Mars asked Jordan what made him the best basketball player in the world. Jordan never gave a definitive answer, while Mars continually asked what became a rhetorical non-question: “It’s gotta be the shoes?!” And even if nobody really believed that Nike’s shoes made Jordan as good as he was, kids playing basketball across America eagerly pointed to their shoes after a made shot or dunk and repeated the phrase.
In the end, the name Mars Blackmon may have been more popular than the phrase itself, as the new Nike ads with Spike became highly anticipated events themselves. But the combination of Jordan, the phrase and Mars Blackmon is something that every male teen and pre-teen of that era remembers.
BE LIKE MIKE – GATORADE
By 1992, there was no bigger star in sports than Michael Jordan. He was far and away the best player in all of basketball. He had already won his 1st NBA Championship, was well on his way to his 2nd and he was about to lead the Dream Team to a Gold Medal in the 1992 Olympics. Anything he endorsed on or off the basketball court was going to turn to gold too. But Gatorade managed to take the icon to another level with its Be Like Mike ad campaign. The visuals of the commercial itself aren’t anything spectacular – just Jordan doing what Jordan does. But the message couldn’t have been any clearer – if you drink Gatorade, you will BE LIKE MIKE.
The catchphrase itself was enough to create a national word of mouth campaign, but what made this campaign one of the best ever was the jingle written by Bernie Pitzel and composed by Ira Antelis and Steve Shafer. As a 13 year old, I memorized the lyrics, which I still know today. I even bought a CD with the song on it. If iTunes had been around back then, it easily would have moved a million units. The jingle was that popular then, and for those individuals who came of age in the early 90’s, it’s still synonymous with Gatorade.
Sometimes I dream
That he is me
You’ve got to see that’s how I dream to be
I dream I move, I dream I groove
If I could Be Like Mike
Again I try
Just need to fly
For just one day if I could
Be that way
I dream I move
I dream I groove
If I could Be Like Mike
*For the full story on how the Be Like Mike campaign came into existence, check out Darren Rovell’s First in Thirst: How Gatorade Turned the Science of Sweat Into a Cultural Phenomenon.
BO KNOWS – NIKE
Much like the Be Like Mike campaign, Nike’s Bo Knows campaign originated in the early 90’s. It centered around the greatest athlete of his time, Bo Jackson – the superhuman running back and baseball player for the Los Angeles Raiders and Kansas City Royals. While there were several different commercials associated with the Bo Knows campaign, the most memorable one was probably the Bo Diddley version, which in fact featured Blues legend Bo Diddley.
The concept was creative yet relatively simple – Bo Jackson is a great football player and baseball player, but what else does he “know”? Utilizing athletes and legends from every other major sport, including the likes of Wayne Gretzky and John McEnroe, Nike used celebrities and the catchphrase “Bo Knows” to create a memorable ad campaign. Certainly the presence of other athletes gave
the campaign credibility, but the often repeated phrase of “Bo Knows” is what
sets this ad apart. The icing on the cake was Bo Diddley telling Bo Jackson, “Bo, you don’t know Diddley!”—a phrase that made its way into the American lexicon for several years. It even served as the title of Bo’s autobiography
“Bo Knows Bo”.
Subsequent versions of this campaign featured a similar theme of Bo Jackson, the super athlete, competing in every sport, and even a cameo from Sonny Bono poking fun at the Bo Knows campaign.
In the end, Bo’s injuries and shortened career took him out of the spotlight sooner than expected. But if you mention his name to anyone of the age range 25-40, they will ineveitably make some mention of Bo Knows.
So as a brand looks to partner with an athlete for a national campaign, what kind of lessons can they learn from the Cokes, Gatorades and Nikes of the world?
The first lesson is to secure A+ talent. With the possible exception of Mean Joe Green, the other athletes used were the absolute best at what they did at the time. If you’re trying to convince people to use your product, you have to be able to convince them that the best athletes in the world use your products. And if you have the budget to bring in other celebs or athletes, do it. They don’t have to be the principal endorser, but they’ll help provide that extra oomph.
The second lesson is to find a catchphrase that resonates outside of the commercial. Be Like Mike and Bo Knows caught on not because of the 30 second spot, but because of the two and three word phrases that kids and adults repeated over and over again. Use the athlete’s name, keep it short, and make it repeatable.
The third lesson is to think bigger than the 30 second spot. 3 of the 5 campaigns on this list weren’t one-off advertisements, but rather a series of ads based around the same theme. Mars Blackmon was a running theme for Nike Air that spanned several years. Bo Knows included several ads that all focused on the Bo Knows themes, but were different variations in their own right. Be Like Mike not only served as a jingle for the Gatorade commercial, but it became its own revenue stream when the company began selling the single.
Finally, be original. For instance, (i) the reason the Be Like Mike ad succeeded was because nobody saw it coming from Gatorade; (ii) an acclaimed director/actor playing a central role in a basketball shoe commercial had never been done before Nike did it; (iii) Tiger Woods bouncing a golf ball on his golf club was an unconventional way to show his skill; (iv) Mean Joe Green was one of the first athletes used in a Super Bowl commercial like that; and (v) Bo Knows was one of the first commercials to use several other athletes and celebrities to sell a product primarily marketed by another athlete.