There has been a shift in the world of sports and business marketing since the era of Jordan. Many thought the NBA star often shied away from politics because he didn't want to risk his multi-million dollar endorsement deals.
Today, companies like Uber are using a heated political moment to provide a platform for sports stars, the most recent being the ad campaign with James and Durant.
Today, customers are increasingly pushing companies to take a stance, or “virtue signal,” that is, to appear to be on a particular side or represent certain ideals that consumers identify with. James is a particularly powerful signaler. He throws jabs at Trump on Twitter. He publicly endorsed Hillary Clinton for president.
Uber tapped into all that when it recently released the ad of LeBron James and Kevin Durant talking candidly about everything from basketball to being black in America. At around the 6-minute mark the pair start talking about President Trump, and what they had to say has garnered a lot of attention.
Here’s the backstory on Uber's marketing move. Last year the company lost a lot of customers to its smaller competitor Lyft, in part because Uber failed to appear that it was distancing itself from Trump and his administration's travel ban. In the moment, Lyft donated $1 million to the ACLU, and it launched an ad campaign with the central message “it matters how you get there.”
There’s an implication by these companies that the decision of which ride app to take is in part a moral choice. I produced a story about Lyft’s messaging and appeal to liberals, which you can read about here.
One important thing to remember is that Uber and Lyft often operate in cities, where there's a large population of liberal consumers. In the age of Trump, these companies have to be particularly careful in how they craft their brand, and that crafting requires attention to politics and prominent social issues.
Uber has taken lots of steps to try and clean up its image since its disastrous year in 2017. It replaced its much criticized CEO Travis Kalanick with Dara Khosrowshahi, an outspoken critic of Trump.
Last July, Uber hired Bozoma Saint John as its first chief brand officer, with the goal of becoming the “official ride of pop culture.” And in October, the company started rolling out the NBA interview ad campaign, the latest of which has become fodder for cable news commentators.
Fox host Laura Ingraham said James should just “shut up and dribble.” Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich, another vocal critic of the Trump administration, came to LeBron’s defense.
All of the media attention brought a lot of eyeballs to the video, many of them liberals who are drawn to the critical remarks these two prominent sports stars have to make about Trump.