Public relations ballyhoos LeBron’s $150 sneakers

lebron_james.jpgThe NBA season arrived last week and with it came the optimism of Cleveland Cavalier fans. That optimism exists because the NBA’s best player, LeBron James, wears the wine and gold.

But this isn’t a story about basketball. It’s a story about PR and marketing for basketball shoes.

While page one of our local paper reported on the Cav’s upset of the Spurs last Friday, page one of the business section talked about the introduction of King James’ new shoe, the AirZoom. Well, it’s not really an introduction, since you can’t buy the shoe airzoom.jpgor another week or so. For now, the shoes are locked in Plexiglas cases at Footlocker, Dick’s and other big-name retailers. You may go there to genuflect before the swoosh. But until Nov. 16, don’t touch. Now that’s how you build anticipation!

LeBron James is good guy and a great player. And were I in his shoes, I certainly wouldn’t have turned down a $90-million endorsement deal. But it’s more than ironic that those who can least afford his Airzooms are the ones most likely to covet them — the kids from low-income families in the hood.

When you get right down to it, basketball shoes are a parity product. So to gain market share, you have to create perceived points of difference that really don’t exist in the products themselves. This is the the stock in trade of advertising, and a special expertise of Nike and its ad agencies. They “just do it” very well, but at what cost?

Start with the $90 mil that Nike paid LeBron. Then add the price of network spots, print advertising, point-of-sale materials, the Web site, etc. It’s no wonder these shoes cost $150!

Contrast AirZoom with Starbury One, the shoe endorsed by Stephon Marbury of the New York Knicks. I wrote about the PR campaign for these shoes back on Sept. 13. A pair of Starburys stephon_marbury.jpgsells for just $14.98 — one-tenth the cost of AirZoom. And if we’re to believe Howard Schacter, chief partnership officer at Steve & Barry’s (Starbury’s exclusive retailer), the shoe is made from the same materials and to similar quality standards as the hi-end competition. Marbury didn’t request a mega-buck endorsement contract. His compensation is tied to sales of the product. But it’s not about the money for Marbury. He’s making a statement about the ethics of the big-buck shoe companies, and he’s doing something about it.

Advertising and marketing folks have to earn a living. But consumers also have a right to thumb their noses at overpriced products. Will that happen? Not likely. Part of the allure of AirZoom and its many Nike predecessors is the prestige that somehow accompanies an insanely high price. Basketball shoes make a fashion statement. It not about what happens on the court.

But at what point does the bottom line give way to social responsibility? We’ve all heard the stories about kids being beaten, then robbed of their Nikes. Nike isn’t responsible for social problems in the hood, but by pricing their products out of reach, then teasing the “have nots” with their advertising messages, they become part of the injustice.

I’m not much of a basketball fan, but I love watching LeBron James’ swoosh.pngsuperhuman feats on the court. But in the unlikely event I ever buy an NBA jersey, it’ll be Marbury’s No. 3. And if I ever buy a pair of basketball shoes, you can bet they won’t have a swoosh on them.

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9 Responses to Public relations ballyhoos LeBron’s $150 sneakers

  1. Andy Curran says:

    Kids on the playground generally don’t aspire to be Stephon Marbury. Hence, the $14.98 price tag.

    Will AirZoom come out with a shoe for Ira Newble or Whateverhisfirstnameis Ilgauskas for $5.99?

    When I was a kid, I went to Bat Day at Yankee Stadium in 1969. My best friend, Sal, got a Mickey Mantle bat. I got a Bobby Cox bat. Guess which one of us was jealous?

    And when I briefly revived my softball career in 1979, my wife bought me a Steve Kemp autographed glove. She told me it was in a clearance bin at the local sporting goods store. You lived in Detroit back then, so you might remember Steve Kemp, who played a few years with the Tigers. If you don’t, that says it all right there! As does the clearance bin. Such is the fate of a journeyman outfielder with a lifetime .278 BA and 130 HRs.

    Stars sell. Barry Bonds might be an exception because of steroids and the fact that he’s such a jerk. LeBron, Tiger Woods, Peyton Manning, Derek Jeter, yada-yada-yada. Worth throwing a few mil at just to have them on your side.

    Music companies are also guilty of selling false messages to the kids in the hood. The rap videos all show these guys cruisin’ in Escalades, poppin’ Cristal, wearing lots of expensive bling and hangin’ with beautiful women. The percentage of those kids who will end up like that is miniscule.

  2. Andy,

    I get your point, but Nike’s motivation for hiring LeBron was never in question. The kid is box office. What’s in question is the company’s ethical bottom line — and it’s showing a serious deficit. The more things change…

  3. Kevin Kramer says:

    I’m an avid Lebron fan and collector. To compare him to Marbury is totally insane. Lebron will become the next Michael Jordan. If you think the Lebrons that they sell in the mall’s are expensive you should see how much people pay for PE (player exclusive) shoes. I’ve seen people pay over $1800 a pair. These shoes are very limited (25 pairs in existance). Ebay plays a HUGE factor in this whole resale game. I personnally own over 50 pairs of Lebrons ranging from $125 a pair to $1400 a pair. I also have autographed jerseys and basketballs. This guy will be a basketball icon! Finally, all these shoes and autographed jerseys will help pay for my daughters college education 16 years from now. So please don’t hate on Lebron. Jennifer is doing well at home (permanentley) with the baby. I just happen to see this on your blog and had to comment.

  4. I’m a LeBron fan, too, Kevin. The guy has handled himself well and has been a credit to a game that really needed “credit.” If I read between the lines, your comments actaully support mine. Nike has created a culture that covets player-endorsed products. In your case, it’ll go to a good cause, your daughter’s education. In the case of kids in the hood who can’t afford the shoes…well that’s another story altogether. Congrats on thinking ahead. And call me when your daughter is ready to go to college. I know a little bit about that — a lot more than I know about basketball.

  5. Kevin Kramer says:

    Jennifer is already overloading her on learning so many words. She seems to be picking it up very well. $150 is a little steep for his new shoes but these kids will find a way to get them. Kinda makes you worry a little bit and wonder what this world is coming to. I just hope Isabella is fortunate enought to get a outstanding education like Jennifer did at Kent State and have great professors like she did. Teachers play a huge part in the development of our kids and people nowadays just seem to forget that.

  6. kicksology 101 says:

    ok…yes, the sneakers are pricey…BUT to say that the starbury one comes even CLOSE to the quality of the Air Zoom LeBron IV (the official name) is a REACH (a long one at that). if you don’t believe me, go to a steve and barry’s and carefully examine the starbury. then, look at the zoom lebron IV and compare the two. the Starbury 1 does not even come close to the quality that the Zoom Lebron IV has.

    from a technological stand point, the Zoom LeBron IV has the latest features in a shoe (all of which are functional features geared toward performance)

    1. The Full Length Zoom-Air insole. amazing cushioning. just try it on.
    2. Glass-fiber contorsion plate – helps prevent the shoe from bending where the foot does not which, in turn, helps guard against plantar faciitis
    3. Foamposite upper – synthetic material which molds to the foot while being strong enough to provide very strong support (a bit on the heavy side though)
    4. The unique sole with the cut-away design – provides flexibility & support (in combination with the contorsion plate)

    this is not a cheap shoe. many hours of research and development were spent by nike engineers and technicians to develop these technologies. i may not cost as much as 150 to make, but a shoe like that will cost apporximately $30/pair in material cost.

    as opposed to the Starbury one, which features a leather upper (not a very durable leather i might add), standard herring-bone traction pattern, and foam cushioning (which isn’t the best) which probably cost, material-wise, $5/pair to make.

    so, why is the LeBron IV so pricey? well, nike needs to make money back and then a profit. so, it needs to factor in the cost of R&D into the sneaker’s wholesale price to be able to pay off it’s employees and STILL make a profit. So, a high-end performance shoe like the LeBron IV may be sold to retailers at something like $90/pair. Of course, the retailers who carry the LeBron IV are also businesses and they need to get back money spent on the sneakers plus a profit. so, the price jumps up to $150.

    however, perhaps the issue may be that do regular people really need a shoe built to perform to the standards of a phenomenal professional athlete? perhaps not.

    but then again, the reason as to WHY nike signed LeBron is because of his marketability, which enables them to provide a shoe for him built to perform on the court without worrying about losing money.

    maybe the answer would be to create an entire line of lebron sneakers, much like the Jordan Brand, which features a signature shoe (which is the shoe that the athlete wears – the “flagship” if you will) and different models of shoes which fit into different budgets but still carry the athlete’s name and quality expected that comes with that name.

    just my $0.02

  7. Ah, if it were only 2 cents. Problem is, it’s $150. And much of it is needed to cover what I think are obscene endorsement contracts Nike offers. My theory on why Nike does this: The company has no social conscience. But they are damn good at the shoe biz. Let me add, as I did after Kevin’s comment: I’m a LeBron fan and a Cav’s fan. Nice young man who was offered a ton of cash by a not-so-nice company. I’ll be up rooting for him tonight.

  8. halfyhalf says:

    What is even worse is Lebron’s attitude towards the cheaper shoes. Claiming that Nike has “better standards” than a shoe made to be cheap so that the poor can afford it.

  9. [...] relievers? Same stuff. Or the absolute vanity that drives a person to pay $500 for a handbag or $150 for a pair of sneakers? If this is free choice, you can have [...]

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