In January 1993, McDonald’s released an iconic advertisement for their Superbowl submission that featured two of basketball’s greatest athletes in a friendly game of horse, competing for a Big Mac.
It started out with Larry Bird in a gym shooting around. Then Michael Jordan came in to join him for a game of one-on-one, but before he did so he opened up a golden-arch lunch.
First, what the heck is Michael Jordan doing eating McDonald’s before playing basketball and second, what in the heck is he wearing? It looks like he bought a warm-up shirt from a Picasso Showcase of Art souvenir store, but I digress.
Anyways, the always competitive Bird (who is a horrible actor by the way) shows his hunger for food and winning, and challenges Jordan for his Big Mac.
“First one to miss watches the winner eat,” Bird says confidently.
What follows is a crescendo of shotmaking that starts at reasonable and ends up at ridiculous. Each legend says, “Nothing but net,” after describing how it would go through a window, bounce off this and carom off that, hit the floor and drop into the net. Each shot defied physics more than the next, yet it was unbelievably entertaining. Here were two legends hanging out like gym rats competing for a $2 sandwich that they could afford many times over had they sold a fingernail clipping. It was light, it was comical and it gave personality to the athletes and the brand.
Fast forward twenty years to January 14, 2013…the day that the world of golf marketing changed. In what people consider one of the worst kept secrets in sponsorship deals, Nike officially unveiled McIlroy and the swoosh together as one, effectively starting the marriage of one of the most recognizable brands in the world with one of the coveted athlete brands in the world. No one can deny the reach Nike has in the eyes of the consumer, and the expectation is that they can ride their new two-time major champion stallion to unprecedented heights only seen by one of their current and proven commodities, Tiger Woods.
To kick-off the campaign, we were treated to a 60-second glimpse of where Nike sees this brand today and where it will go. Nike has a knack for creating interest and buzz through their advertisement campaigns, and have had an amazing ability to position itself throughout history as a pop culture stalwart using words and pictures as their paintbrush. For a refresher, look back on past campaigns featuring Bo Jackson, Charles Barkley, Tiger Woods and absolutely anything with Michael Jordan. Done correctly and with the right personality, the effect could be in the billions of dollars and only stands to make the company and the athlete absurdly wealthy. This new advertisement successfully set the tone for the McIlroy brand while paying due reverence to the established (and extremely valuable) Woods brand.
It starts quietly on a driving range, where McIlroy and Woods are swinging away, both hitting the pin with a precision that is ridiculous, but actually believable. It only takes about 5 seconds to know where this is going. The playful teasing by McIlroy about Tiger being old and the return jab from Tiger about Rory’s hair is refreshing and is something we all know we do to even to the best of our friends. The two then triy to outdo each other, hitting shot after shot and plugging the ball into cups of various types that non-golfers would associate with: drinking cups, glass stemware at a wedding, soup bowls and even a putting mat cup in an office. Yes, it’s unbelievable, but it doesn’t matter. For the first time ever, we see McIlroy and Woods wearing the same brand, teasing the other while playing a game of H-O-R-S-E at the range. Sounds familiar doesn’t it?
It ends with a dumbfounded McIlroy asking Woods, “How’d you do that?”(after a seemingly impossible golf shot that even David Copperfield wouldn’t figure out) and a wily Woods responds, “You’ll learn.” Finally the ever important and recognizable Nike swoosh completes the ad — the symbolic entity to which we must thank for this union of golf’s heavyweights.
There you go — brilliant marketing at its best and the stage is set for what could be Nike’s most successful marketing campaign ever. They managed to introduce Rory as the next one without giving up an ounce of honor to his predecessor. In what is likely a Mr. Miyagi-Danielsan intended thematic piece, Nike managed to stay true to both athletes and send the message that neither is better than the other, yet one definitely has an edge with experience and wisdom to which the other can learn a thing or two from. Nike also made clear that this necessity of passing of the torch is not going to be a sudden one, but rather an evolution that may take years to build.
Tiger is a beast from a promotional standpoint and before this year, I didn’t think anyone could hold a candle to him off the golf course. Golf’s next brightest star needed the horsepower of a brand like Nike if he could compete for the top spot as the sport’s most bankable athlete. Tiger, in spite of his inability to reach the success from his past, still yields large crowds and the hope is that McIlroy will too. But that takes time and smart marketing to create a personality that fans can attach themselves to, believe in and ride the victories and defeats with “their guy.”
Fortunately, Rory has already seen success and has built a strong following of fans, but the push of a major brand can only help his visibility and marketability to bring in an even greater fan base and generate even more interest for the athlete and his major sponsor. In the meantime, and until Rory reaches the seemingly unachievable commercial stature set by Tiger, the sponsorship deal with Nike will inevitably pit the two superstars together (albeit for promotional purposes) to satiate the desire of fans to see a head to head showdown between the current world No. 1 and arguably the greatest of all time.
“The Showdown” with Larry Bird and Michael Jordan has stood the test of time and remains to be one of my favorite advertisements ever. It featured two accomplished and popular athletes doing the thing they do best (I’m not referring to acting) and selling a product that is accessible to almost anyone. In doing so, the casual fan has the opportunity to enjoy the athlete’s personality that much more. In turn, they might want the product more as well.
There is no mistake that Rory and Tiger’s ad pays homage to Larry and MJ’s, and hopes to accomplish the same success on the business end of things. Nike was clever enough to recognize that this unique opportunity needed a strategy that can be built upon and added to it by using the teacher/pupil theme to carry the brand to the next decade. The hope is that Rory will take over the reigns as golf’s most valuable property and by making sure that Tiger is there along with him, Nike is banking that this transition will be as smooth as Rory’s swing.