Shaquille O’Neal is the hardest working guy in the pitch-man business. The NBA Hall of Famer shows up in TV commercials, digital ads and social media spots for products in just about every industry, while also being a serial franchisee, spinning a side gig as a DJ and opening locations of his Big Chicken restaurant in two NHL arenas. And that’s a non-exhaustive list of just his November.
More impressive than the expanse of his commercial empire is how genuine and on-brand he is in every venture. Anyone else who showed up in car insurance, pizza and printer ink commercials over the course of a single Law & Order rerun would come across as a shill. But Shaq? There’s not a shill bone in his massive body. He’s always 100% him. That’s why he’s so effective in each, and why the market is still nowhere close to saturation. Er, Shaq-turation.
That’s a major credit to the integration between the brands, their agencies and Team Shaq. The brands and agencies who prepare his commercial spots have to write for him specifically in order to gain his approval. In one sense, that’s an easy task for the creatives: on the off-chance they haven’t seen a few dozen Shaq commercials in the last few months, they can go to YouTube or check out his social media to get to know his voice and the kind of work he has done. On the other hand, the creatives are writing for a distinct personality, a rigorous brand voice that comes across as pure joviality.
Shaq’s example provides valuable lessons to teams and sponsors developing their activations.
Players are more valuable as people than as assets
Most team sponsorships give the sponsors access to the players for some commercial activations. These are usually boilerplate elements of the sponsorship contract, and they are not fulfilled much more creatively.
Pictures or videos of the players will show up in the sponsors’ ads or website. The players may do some corporate appearances and record short video or audio hits. The players are essentially interchangeable. The stars are obviously more recognizable than the backups, but if the starting pitcher is not available for the photo shoot, the journeyman left fielder will do just fine.
This is a missed opportunity for everyone involved. These players have personalities, many times big ones (even if not Shaq-level big).
The fans know these personalities through the players’ social media, interviews and having followed them throughout their careers. If the sponsor ads don’t resonate with the fans, it’s because these aren’t the players the fans know and love. They’re just cardboard cut-outs and digital assets.
Players already tell sponsors much of what they need to know
Given how open and accessible many athletes are, a small amount of research can have an outsized effect on an activation.
Knowing that one player is a vegetarian and another is an advocate for child hunger charities – attributes that don’t show up on a roster but are right up front on Instagram – will let a supermarket build better campaigns and relationships from their team sponsorship. Seeing that one player’s father is a West Texas oilman and another player is regularly posting about saving the whales will enable a car sponsor to make a better decision about which player’s image appears in the display for an SUV, and which for the hybrid.
To some extent, this is playing defense. The fans who see the commercials may not say “Wow, that’s a great brand fit!” But at least they won’t be saying “C’mon, really? As if that player would ever go near the meat aisle.”
But there is a forward-looking, positive aspect, too. If the player sees the brand using his image in a way that is consistent with his personality and his values, he may start engaging with the brand organically. His agent might reach out to the brand to explore an individual sponsorship or an activation beyond the minimum required by the team’s contract. These interactions will increase the value of the sponsorship for the team and the brand, facilitating renewals and expansions.
One of the best examples of this “force multiplier” effect was the relationship between the Houston Texans, supermarket chain H-E-B and star player J.J. Watt.
H-E-B has a long-standing relationship with the Texans, and incorporated Watt into some of their team-level campaigns. In 2013, they signed Watt to an individual sponsorship. Four years later, the relationship culminated in H-E-B’s chairman and CEO of personally donating $5 million to Watt’s hurricane relief fund.
In fairness, outliers abound in this example. Words fall short of describing the affinity Texans (the residents, not the football team) have for H-E-B, and the role H-E-B plays in the state and local communities. Watt approaches Shaq levels of charisma, marketability and genuine personality. And the Texans already had strong activations on the H-E-B sponsorship.
The potential between the team, sponsor and player was enormous. But it had to be realized. And it ultimately was because each party sought out and recognized the opportunities presented by the others.
Making team sponsorship activations personal and genuine
Every team has enough personalities for most sponsors to find the right fit for any campaign or activation.
The first step for sponsors is shifting their mindset from seeing the players as part of the asset package in a sponsorship contract to seeing them as people who can provide real value and return through genuine, credible engagement. Then it’s doing the simple research to see what each player presents to the world about himself, both personally and commercially.
With a bit of upfront work, the line between personal and commercial will fade and disappear, as it has for players like Shaq and Watt and the many brands they represent.