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Does Lebron James Really Drive a KIA?

How inauthentic product promotion tells stories we don’t believe and disconnects us from the brand.

The buzzer went off and Lebron James hit his knees in exhaustion. The Cleveland Cavaliers had just taken a 3–0 series lead against the Atlanta Hawks in the 2015 Eastern Conference Finals. No team has ever come back from a 3–0 deficit. It was a win that virtually guaranteed the Cavs a trip to the Finals, but left James on the floor spent of energy.

In what analysts are calling the one of the largest triple-double performances in history, James put up 37 points, 18 rebounds and 13 assists.

Then he left Quicken Loans Arena in his KIA K900.

We’ve all seen sports stars and athletes getting paid to promote products — nothing new there. We understand that they’re getting a large (and by large, I mean millions of dollars) check to stand there, smile and say something supportive of the product being sold. Up until recently, the product didn’t really matter. Neither did that athlete’s association to the product. People just enjoyed seeing them on their televisions.

This type of endorsement marketing has been happening for a long time, however, the invention of broadcast television has made this one of the go-to marketing plays of the last 30 years. The logic goes like this: People like that athlete. That athlete likes that product. Now people like that product.

Makes sense.

Need to sell underwear? Get Michael Jordan. It doesn’t matter that Michael Jordan has nothing to do with underwear (except that he wears some). People just like Michael Jordan. He makes them smile. They think about all the amazing things he’s done. The image of him soaring through the air, tongue hanging out during his foul line slam dunk fills our minds. Now we’re happy watching an underwear commercial — instead of being indifferent or ignoring it completely — which is exactly what advertisers want.

Lebron James is marching the towards his fifth straight NBA Finals appearance (a feat not accomplished since Bill Russell with the Boston Celtics in 1960s) and hoping to secure his third championship. This time, as the prodigal son returning to his hometown of Cleveland, Ohio. Clearly James will go down as one of the greatest basketball players of all time [insert Jordan vs James arguments here].

So what’s with the Korean automotive company partnership? Seems like an odd choice, right?

Reportedly, James purchased the luxury K900 sedan before the endorsement. He drove it around for a summer and liked the car so much he wanted to add it to his collection.

“We were not actively seeking another endorser,” said Tim Chaney, vice president of marketing at Kia Motors America told ESPN, “but we decided to partner with him. He brought us instant credibility.”

James said of the deal,

“Everything that I do, I want it to be authentic to what I do and what they’re about, they’re a pretty cool brand to be with. I’m just excited I’m able to be with them.”

Since then James has been known to post pictures of his customized K900 on his social media accounts saying things like, “Rolling around in my K900. Love this car!”

The KIA endorsement feels real. It feels authentic. Prodigal son returns to northeastern Ohio, buys a KIA sedan and goes after another NBA championship.

It’s a story that’s believable.

Compare that to Buick’s celebrity endorsements for example. They used Tiger Woods as a spokesman for years. The problem is everyone knows Tiger Woods does not drive a Buick. In the words of Monday Night Football’s host Chris Berman, “Come on, man!” His contract with Buick stipulated that he arrive and depart tournaments in a Buick, but no one believed it was his car. Tiger Woods can buy any car he wants. There’s no way he’s driving a Buick.

After some turbulent personal circumstances, Buick parted ways with Woods and hired their next sports star, Shaquille O’Neil. These ads showed the 7’ 1” O’Neil inside the “spacious” Buick LaCrosse. They debuted the commercials during the NCAA Men’s Final Four weekend. Although the commercials were humorous, they felt “pushed.” They felt inauthentic.

Why? Because everyone knows that Shaquille O’Neil doesn’t drive a Buick? That’s part of it, but everyone knows Shaquille O’Neil can’t fit in a Buick! “Come on, man!”

You know they took the Jaws of Life and pulled the top off that car. Shaq climbed in and the director shouted, “Action!” Have you ever seen him pull up to the Staples Center in Los Angeles in his customized H2 Hummer? That thing looked like a semi truck. Shaquille O’Neil is not driving around L.A. in a Buick. “Come on, man!”

Putting all that to the side, hiring Gen X sports stars just seems like the wrong play for Buick. Generation X is one of the smallest generations in U.S. history. Why not market to Baby Boomers — the largest generation in U.S. history? Put Robert Redford in a Buick. My dad and all his friends would buy one.

In the end, it’s the wrong message to the wrong audience.

It’s not believable.

Marketing is quickly moving to a place of authenticity. Putting a likable sports star on tv is no longer enough. American consumers want more. They want connection. They want customization and personalization. They want a story to believe and a brand that feels real. There are so many choices, we want reasons. We want a brand to stand up and demonstrate a willingness to “know” me and create for me. We want to make buying decisions that help us tell the stories of our lives.

James and KIA feels real. KIA demonstrated that they are a legit player in the automotive market and one we should at least consider next time we go to purchase a car. After all, Lebron bought one. Maybe he knows something we don’t.

Buick, on the other hand never got any smiles, good feelings or consideration. All they ever got was the benefit of being used in my speeches in front of thousands of people across the country as an example of inauthenticity.

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