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 or 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 sells 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’ superhuman 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.