The death of Kobe Bryant and the pitfalls of big brands
Amid tributes to Kobe Bryant on Sunday – dedications at the Grammy Awards, condolences from presidentsmessages written on NBA players sneakers – There was a Posting on Twitter from blockchain company Tron Foundation.
“Kobe is a member of the TRON family,” he said. “As such, we will dedicate @niTROnSummit‘s festivities to his legendary life and legacy.
Mr. Bryant’s only public interaction with the company was a keynote address at its 2019 conference, and replies to the tweet were filled with complaints calling Tron opportunistic for capitalizing on what seemed like a tenuous relationship so soon after his death in a helicopter crash with eight other people, including his daughter Gianna.
The backlash suggested companies need to be tactful when trying to commemorate Mr Bryant. A hasty post on social media can lead to accusations that they are trying to cash in at a sensitive time.
“There’s no playbook for this one; sponsors are going to tread incredibly lightly,” said Jeremy Carey, managing director of Optimum Sports, the sports media and marketing arm of advertising giant Omnicom Media Group. “It’s too early.”
Justin Sun, founder and CEO of Tron, said his company’s tweet was sincere. “I totally understand that there will be different voices from the community, but this is from the bottom of my heart, I need to do the right thing,” he said. “Anyway, we had to pay homage to him.”
Like an earlier on-court superstar, Michael Jordan, Mr. Bryant was a gifted marketer off the game. He earned more from his contracts with companies than from his salary, according to Forbes, and his success has helped shape how current players like LeBron James and Stephen Curry navigate the celebrity endorsement business. Mr. Bryant has also studied the discipline, as he showed when he took an international marketing course at Boston College in 2014.
Businesses today have made themselves relevant to customers by reacting quickly to news cycles. When an installation comprising a banana taped to a wall at Art Basel sparked an intense reaction on social media as the companies ran spoof ads online. When Tesla found himself trending on social media after unveiling his Tesla Cybertruck, Lego posted a photo mocking him. And shortly after Twitter users deemed a recent Peloton ad sexist, ‘Deadpool’ star Ryan Reynolds got his act together. an answer ad for his company Aviation American Gin.
But companies have learned through hard experience to be cautious when it comes to news cycles dominated by celebrity deaths. In 2016, the shoemaker Crocs attracted complaints after marking The death of David Bowie featuring an image of a lightning bolt, inspired by the musician’s “Aladdin Sane” album cover, superimposed on a white shoe. Mexican airline VivaAerobus caused similar outrage for post a picture of a similar flash in an airplane.
Later that year, to mark the death of Prince, Cheerios posted an image of the words “Rest In Peace,” with a single Cheerio dotting the “i” in the word “in.” After a backlash, Cheerios pressed delete. Maker’s Mark went with an image showing the distinctive red top of his bourbon bottle turned purple, Prince’s signature color. Annoyed fans noted that Prince did not drink alcohol. Other companies, including 3M, Getty Images and Pornhubwere also accused of taking advantage of his death to promote their products.
Despite this, several Assurance companies have offered their condolences to Mr. Bryant’s family in recent days, and to the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel in Florida lit up in purple and gold from the Lakers.
Other companies, particularly those that have worked with Mr. Bryant, have opted for a softer approach: a black-and-white photo paired with a statement honoring his life and expressing concern for the families of the victims.
Nike, which has been linked to Mr. Bryant for nearly two decades and helped popularize his ‘Black Mamba’ nickname, cited his “immeasurable impact” and made no mention of a recent updated sneaker design called Kobe V Protro Chaos.
Adidas, which sponsored Mr. Bryant as a teenager and produced shoes in his name, described him as “a true legend.” Sports drink maker BodyArmor said Mr. Bryant, a major investor in the company, was “an amazing friend.”
McDonald’s, which let a sponsorship deal with Mr Bryant expire after he was accused of sexually assaulting a woman in 2003posted a message “honor his greatnesson a corporate Twitter account dedicated to the McDonald’s All-American Games, a high school basketball tournament.
Sprite, which stopped running ads featuring Mr. Bryant after the 2003 indictment, has not publicly commented on his death. (The criminal case against Mr. Bryant was dropped in 2005. He settled down with his accuser and the terms of the settlement were not disclosed.)
Several organizations unrelated to Mr. Bryant also welcomed the news. Planters announced that it had suspended its pre-Super Bowl paid advertising campaign, a stunt featuring mascot Mr. Peanut die in a car accident. Google, Mountain Dew, Olay and Pop-Tarts have pushed back on plans to reveal their Super Bowl ads.
“You want to be sensitive at a time like this,” said Shaina Wiel, a longtime marketing professional who founded the Minorities in Sports Business networking group. “It’s part of a larger conversation: how do brands fit into these situations?”
Marketing was central to Mr. Bryant’s public persona. Advertisements portrayed him as goofy and approachable. He lip-synced to Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock and Roll” alongside other sports stars for a Guitar Hero commercial in 2008. He tried to outscore soccer star Lionel Messi in a Turkish Airlines which was voted YouTube. ad of the decade in 2015. He let Apple describe him in a cheeky ad in 2016 as being “locked in a battle with Father Time.”
He launched Granity Studios, a multimedia company focused on sports-related content, and won an Oscar for an animated short. He co-founded Bryant Stibel, an investment firm, and funded companies like Fortnite maker Epic Games. And he encouraged the children to play sports in a Advertisement for Project Playan initiative of the non-profit think tank Aspen Institute.
Now the fans are petition to the NBA to change his logo – inspired by another former Lakers star, Jerry West – to feature Mr. Bryant’s image.
“He created this gray area, establishing that it wasn’t just about putting his name on a pair of shoes,” Carey said. “He changed the game for a lot of athletes. He set a new bar for business beyond basketball.