Even before Yao Ming played his first NBA minutes—even before he was drafted by the Houston Rockets—there was intense speculation about how the 7-foot, 5-inch center would measure up in the real big league: marketing. And the consensus is that he's already emerged as a commercial all-star. Last month he made his debut as a big-time endorser, for Apple, and two weeks ago he showed up in Visa's entry in the Super Bowl ad sweepstakes. That's quite a feat for any 22-year-old rookie, let alone one who isn't fluent in English. So how's pitchman Yao performing? (You can see the Apple spot on the firm's site. To see the Visa ad, go to this collection of Super Bowl ads at ifilm.com, and scroll down until you see the Visa logo.)
In the Apple ad, we watch as Yao Ming ends up on a plane next to Verne Troyer, the 2-foot, 8-inch actor most famous for playing Mini-Me in the Austin Powers series. Soon both are tapping away on new Apple G4 PowerBooks. Yao uses the one with a 12-inch screen—remarkably small. Troyer uses the model with the 17-inch screen—remarkably large. Each covertly, and enviously, eyes the other's machine. In the Visa ad, Yao goes into a New York souvenir store and asks if he can write a check for the Statue of Liberty replica he's selected. "Yo," is the full response of the girl behind the counter, who jerks a thumb toward the "No checks" sign. "Yao," says Yao, thinking she's mispronounced his name. She calls the manager. ("Yo!") The exchange repeats. ("Yo." "Yao." "Can I write a check?" "Yo …" etc.) Finally he leaves. If only he'd known to use a Visa Check Card! (Yogi Berra pops up in the kicker and also fails to grasp the meaning of "Yo"—"Yogi," he says, sweetly.)
Pairing Yao with Troyer in the Apple ad risked turning it into a kind of 30-second freak show, but the spot comes off pretty well—it's amusing, hard to ignore, and actually underscores the features that the computer-maker wants to underscore. The Visa ad is less successful in making you think about the product itself but is probably better as a small piece of entertainment, and certainly a more interesting narrative to analyze. (America is a place where many cultures come together—and fail to understand each other.)
But we're really here to assess the Brand Called Yao. The hoopster famously takes advice on all matters of marketing from a small group of advisers—BDA Sports Management, a University of Chicago business professor, and a distant Yao relative who is an MBA student at that school—referred to as "Team Yao." The man they are marketing has a lot of appeal; aside from his actual on-court talent, he's routinely described as an unusually team-oriented player with a self-effacing manner and a sense of humor. This is an extremely attractive set of attributes at a time when many NBA stars are seen as either selfish millionaire crybabies, borderline thugs, or both. As recently as three months ago, one Team Yao member commented that "the only real mistake we can make is to rush things."
Yet with these two spots, Yao is quickly becoming inescapable. Next up: an ad for Gatorade. Yao also has two deals in China: one with wireless provider China Unicom, the other with a firm called Sorrent, which makes video games to be played via cell phone. (Interestingly, the first company to make a deal with Yao was Nike, which signed him to an endorsement contract several years ago, long before anyone knew whether he would even make it to the NBA; the shoe-maker has yet to feature him in an ad, and its contract expires in May.) His official Web site (with both Chinese and English versions) is slated to go live within a month.
If taking it slow is important, then why so much Yao now? Bill Sanders of BDA Sports Management insists that appearances notwithstanding, Yao is being extremely discriminating about his endorsements "when you consider what he's been offered." He adds that Yao is pushing products he actually believes in and, for example, won't do a deal for alcohol.
Nevertheless, despite a fairly impressive performance for a rookie, Yao is still a long way from living up to the awesome hype that surrounds him. What if he fails to become the kind of dominating force that so many observers are now predicting—which is no small risk in the NBA? While the number of deals he's doing may be small, each is very high-profile, which raises the stakes for all concerned. Apple, Visa, and whatever future endorsees emerge want Yao to sell their products; the Rockets want Yao to sell tickets; the NBA wants Yao to help sell basketball to the world. Hyperventilating assessments have pegged him as a one-man marketing machine whose potential dwarfs even the likes of Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods. The key difference there is that no one has any doubts about Jordan and Woods as all-time greats. The more we hear and see of Yao the future star, the harder it gets for him to live up to the promise and avoid not just hype-deflation but an outright backlash.
Sanders points out that Yao is already a top all-star vote-getter and generally sounds as though he has little doubt that his star endorser will live up to towering expectations as a player. And as a lifelong Rockets fan, I hope Yao turns out to be the next Hakeem Olajuwon—and not, in a scenario that would be a nightmare for fans and marketers alike, the next Ralph Sampson.