Jeremy Lin is – though we might have to say “was” in the near future – a PR God-send. The obscure Harvard-educated, undrafted, Asian-American point guard's meteoric rise to the starting five of the New York Knicks is the stuff of which Hollywood movies – and brand marketers' dreams – are made.
He provides a gateway to a huge and still significantly untapped Asian market. His ability to remain composed and cordial in the face of myriad media microphones demonstrates his potential as a spokesperson. Basketball stars as revered as Magic Johnson gave him their stamp of approval. And in a sports world too often dominated by labor strife and badly behaving athletes, to call Lin a breath of fresh air would be a serious understatement.
Brands were understandably quick to pounce on the Linsanity. Nike
began selling Jeremy Lin-themed shoes in late February at $130 a pair. Just a couple of days ago, the Knicks and Acer
, a Taiwan-based information technology and electronics corporation, announced a new marketing partnership that no doubt was spurred by the recent two-time Sports Illustrated cover boy
- a noteworthy story unto itself. This week, reports came out that Volvo
was in negotiations with Lin.
Sure, the initial euphoria waned a bit as the Knicks started losing games, but Lin remained a unique feel-good story that seemed to have legs.
Unfortunately, brands that hitched their wagon to the #17 (Lin's uniform number) express might soon learn the dangers of jumping on a phenomenon too quickly.
Mike D'Antoni, the head coach with the free-flowing offensive system under which Lin thrived, came to a "mutual agreement" with the team's owner James Dolan to step down from his post this past Wednesday. The new coach, Mike Woodson, is largely expected to shift strategy to feature the team's polarizing star forward Carmelo Anthony, who many pundits feel forced D'Antoni to resign because he failed to buy into a Lin-led game plan. Lin might lose his starting job to veteran Baron Davis. Even if he doesn't, his primary role on the team will almost certainly diminish.
A mere few days ago, everyone was certain Lin would be the starting point guard for the NBA team representing the media capital of the world. A branding slam dunk. Now, his position is compromised. Before the season is over we might be talking about a bench player whose 15 minutes are up.
Last year's PRWeek/Catalyst Public Relations sports roundtable
touched on the pitfalls that companies often encounter because star athletes can create off-field crises for themselves, their teams, their leagues, and the brands that shell out millions of dollars so these stars can represent them.
Lin's “branding crisis” is not born from any of that. Factors out of his control – a disgruntled superstar teammate, a mercurial owner, and a widely respected head coach who simply had no more answers – could very well lead to his return to mediocrity. (He'll never be obscure again, however. That's for certain.)
In branding as in life, many things really are too good to be true.