Let Your Game Speak: Russell Westbrook’s New Challenge

Along with the Nike swoosh, the Jumpman may be basketball’s most enduring symbol since the basketball and the hoop. The most iconic player of all time’s signature silhouette is a remarkable image. It makes us imagine the incredible, and yet it’s still vague. Anyone can make that pose, anyone can dream of flight.

Russell Westbrook is the latest athlete to step into that hallowed spot with the Jordan Brand. Dwyane Wade left to sign with Li-Ning in a move that could point the direction of player advertisement east to the Chinese company and help grow the game internationally. The move marks a new evolution in the basketball product industry, either by establishing the legitimacy of international marketing, or simply re-cementing the States as the undisputed ruler.

But what about the impact of Westbrook signing with the Jordan Brand, and trying to fill Wade’s shoes? What may have started as a ground-saving move may turn out to be one of their greatest leaps forward. Westbrook is one of the league’s brightest young stars, sitting just below the superstar status of players like Kevin Durant and Derrick Rose. He’s also one of those players with the greatest chance to make the leap into that echelon. His game makes that obvious, though his conservative off-court life could call into question what his impact will be with JB. We don’t hear much about Westbrook off of the court. Coaches love it and fans love his game, but the relation between player and consumer is what makes the sneakers sell. Does he have the intangibles necessary to make sneakerheads line up outside Foot Locker to wait for his shoes, and for kids to ask for them on their Christmas lists?

Basically: is Russell Westbrook marketable? The easy answer is yes. Everyone is. With enough money and a good corporate model, I could sell some shoes and make you laugh at my commercial. But will I elevate your brand? Of course not. To look at whether or not Russell Westbrook can mirror his growth on the court with the growth of both his and the Jordan Brand, we have to look at how players similar to him have been used in ad campaigns over the years. We’ll start with Derrick Rose, a player very similar to Westbrook in both game and demeanor, to go about finding an answer.

This Rose spot, put on by his parent sneaker company at adidas, provides us with a great idea of how the Jordan Brand could choose to promote Westbrook. Like Russ, Rose is a quieter guy off the court. He keeps his head down, works, and prefers to let his game talk for itself. As the people handling his campaign at adidas wisely recognized (and as is easy to see for the fans), Rose’s game speaks for itself. The explosive athleticism he displays carries the action of the spot and sets up a sharp contrast for the staccato lines Rose provides. A person wearing Rose’s shoe doesn’t necessarily have to be loud, funny, or over-the-top to play like Rose. Quick cuts between Chicago scenery, highlights of Rose playing above the rim and Rose-as-actor ambling through lines about how the adiZero Crazy Light is the lightest shoe ever all help to create that. Speed is also pushed as a signature feature of the sneaker, which Rose holds up at the end before the slogan adidas Is All In flashes on the screen.

[RELATED: The 10 Best Basketball Marketing Campaigns Since 2000]

This backdrop provides us with a good foundation to see how Westbrook can be marketed. This approach is perhaps the most obvious way to use a more stoic player like Rose and still make a bold statement. Because Westbrook, who plays a lot like Rose and acts similarly to him in most other situations, is the new guy at Jordan, this would be a safe and proven approach to take with him at first.

But as this commercial for the adiZero Rose shows, the quiet guys can be funny, as well. With the “Slim Chin” character providing the dialogue and the over-the-top production carrying the rest of the laughs, the most audible thing D-Rose has to do during the whole spot is wink into the camera. His game, again, provides the acting. It becomes comedic when he crosses out The Hangover star and breaks his ankles. Put Westbrook into the spot and it remains as funny as it was with Rose.

If we look at most of the marketing history of Michael Jordan and Wade, who Westbrook could replace in JB’s lineup, it’s apparent they tend to take more dramatic routes in utilizing their players.

Check out this commercial that launched a series of spots based around the concept of Wade as a secret agent.

Notice it features Kevin Hart, who’s been blowing up everywhere recently as one of the funniest dudes out there, but he isn’t used overwhelmingly. He throws in some mildly funny comments, yes, but they don’t drive the commercial. Jordan chooses to take a storytelling approach with Wade, and also piggyback onto the hype surrounding the Miami Heat’s season with the use of their jersey at the end. The Thunder generate a very similar, if less sinister, buzz that could be used in the same way with Westbrook.

It’s interesting to see Jordan almost exclusively using Wade in that way, or in a purely dark and dramatic way (like they did in this spot).

As some of Wade’s work for Gatorade and T-Mobile show, Wade’s a pretty versatile actor. And the man is pretty funny, too. He conveys humor very well, actually.

Then, of course, there are the Jordan commercials with Michael himself. These are where it all started, with simple, often black-and-white commercials starring just MJ and a basketball. They too, were stoic. The addition of Mars Blackmon was similar to Wade’s commercials with Kevin Hart. It added comedy to the spots, but again, the laughs didn’t come from the player himself. In fact, Jordan rarely talks in his shoe commercials. When he does, it’s like Rose’s dialogue: staccato, short sentences that often play off of another actor in the commercial, or are compacted with the message of the ad.

This rough “history” of Air Jordan gives us a picture of what themes and images they used throughout their years marketing both shoes and players. These commercials are normally either player-based (Jordan dunking in the gym alone), the player with another, often comedic actor (Mars Blackmon), the player speaking over highlights of himself, anonymous sports teams decked in Jordan gear imitating the player with the “Jordan” figure making a short appearance either as an homage or to deliver a short line, or that same commercial minus the player’s appearance at all. While there are other formulas for a Jordan commercial, these are the clear-cut dominant themes.

From what we’ve already examined here, Westbrook could be used in any of these dominant themes to make the same commercials that grew the brand into such an international force. Of course, a lot of that growing was the work of Jordan himself, and the countless sales made because on his GOAT status, but regardless of how the popularity got there, Westbrook seems poised to take advantage of it. The Jordan Brand gives their studs shoes, with (formerly) Wade, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul all enjoying signature lines. Westbrook seems poised to take the off-court leap from player with elite ability to recognizable superstar.

While Westbrook, along with Rajon Rondo, were recently some of Nike’s signature guys sporting their Hyperfuse shoe, Westbrook has never had his own shoe or his own commercial. But recently, he appeared in some Foot Locker ads, and also showed up in spots for NBA 2K11.

Westbrook really doesn’t do a whole lot in this ad other than spray James Harden with mustard, but it’s enough. It’s a funny spot though, mainly because of Harden’s beard, but it still makes Westbrook comedic through association.

The rising star status of Westbrook still hasn’t given him many opportunities to show off his personality, but it doesn’t really matter how the player performs in the commercial. What does matter is the personality the player shows on and off the hardwood.

There’s a lot of familiarity and excitement with Westbrook’s game. We’ve seen him dunk the ball from every angle. We’ve seen him control the pace of games his entire career. He has the on-court flair that moves product. It’s exciting, and everyone out there wants to replicate it. What I think will eventually lead to that signature Westbrook sneaker, though, is his off-court flair.

[RELATED: The 25 Best Basketball Commercials Of All Time]

As a quieter guy, it’s the little things that can create Westbrook’s brand: the crazy postgame outfits and the press conference rants that later go viral. It’s the hipster dress and the oversized glasses that will make him. You think about Westbrook on-court, and you see the passion and excitement. Off-court, you have a flamboyant dresser. His hipster style marks a whole niche market the NBA hasn’t really tapped into yet, and while I’m really skeptical about that demographic ever being a huge revenue base for the league and its related products, his tendency to be quiet while looking different (and playing recklessly) seizes on a lot of the emotions that teenagers and young people live with today. He speaks to their need to be different and unique but still succeed, and he shows that you don’t have to be a loud and commanding presence to achieve that.

Take a look at this clip of Westbrook telling a reporter, “No more questions for you, bro,” in a postgame conference:

Notice the reserved demeanor throughout most of the press conference first… then, the really smart answer that Westbrook gives, which is followed by an audible pause before cutting the reporter off. He also mutters the word “troll” under his breath after that, referencing the popular Internet phenomenon. There’s a lot in that little clip. Westbrook knows how to handle himself while producing interesting moments without saying anything dangerously questionable (“Practice!?”).

Then there’s the polarizing way in which sports media handles him. The only thing Skip Bayless talks about more than Westbrook needing to pass more is Tim Tebow. Despite Kevin Durant, Scott Brooks, and other members of the Thunder organization realizing Westbrook’s play makes Oklahoma City what they are, the talking heads love to condemn Westbrook.

When discussed, he’s often regarded as some reckless force who holds Durant back. Still, sometimes just as often, he’s recognized as one of the most dynamic forces in the league. Regardless of how you or I feel about him, his reality is this: he’s discussed often. From a marketing perspective, that’s nothing but good.

The Jordan Brand’s marketing has always been about letting game speak for itself. It’s how Michael carried himself, and it’s now how the company conducts itself. Their athletes tend to reflect that, just as Westbrook does.

How much potential does Westbrook have in this avenue?

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