LaVar Ball: Loose Cannon or Marketing Genius?
Unless you’ve been living under a rock lately, you’re probably familiar LaVar Ball, his newly-drafted-by-the-Lakers eldest son Lonzo, and the family’s Big Baller Brand. From Mr. Ball’s loudmouthed media presence to the family’s recent random appearance on WWE, the Balls have been hard to ignore. Whether you find them entertaining or repugnant, they’re an interesting case study from a marketing perspective.
$495 shoes? Really?
The price tag certainly seems exorbitant for a newly established brand entering the shoe market, especially since the shoe is associated with a player who hasn’t even made his NBA debut. But before you write the pricing decision off as a bad one, let’s talk about it for a minute. It’s a known marketing principle that if you want to be seen as a prestige brand, you price high. Tesla didn’t come into the market with cars priced to sell to the masses, and Rolex wouldn’t be as coveted if they charged half as much for their watches.
The whole point of premium pricing is to communicate that a brand isn’t for everyone and that it’s a status symbol. As LaVar Ball said on Twitter, “"If you can't afford the ZO2'S, you're NOT a BIG BALLER." Premium pricing creates a sense of scarcity and conveys that the product is exclusive and high-end, giving consumers a reason to covet and desire it. In addition, start-ups and niche brands often need to price high in order to try to cover their cost of production. As a market entry strategy, it’s a risky move because you limit your potential purchasers and you’re asking people to shell out a lot of money to try an unproven product. However, it’s easier to start priced high and then either lower your prices or introduce a lower-priced alternative later than it is to introduce yourself as a mass-market brand and try to move upward. Only time will tell whether premium pricing is the right move for the Big Baller Brand.
Is any publicity good publicity?
Phineas T. Barnum (as in Barnum & Bailey Circus) is often credited with saying that there’s no such thing as bad publicity. LaVar Ball has certainly created his own media circus with outrageous comments, like saying you can’t win a championship with three white guys because their foot speed is too slow or claiming that Lonzo is better than Stephen Curry, LeBron James and Russell Westbrook. He made headlines for his heated comments to Kristine Leahy of Fox Sports 1 when she asked how many pairs of shoes Big Baller Brand had sold. And on Twitter, #LaVarBallSays enjoyed a Chuck Norris-esque moment this spring as Twitter users shared their own outrageous statements.
For a start-up brand with little or no media budget, earned media is a smart way to market yourself. Big Baller Brand is trying to independently break into a saturated and competitive market space, and you can’t do that without building brand recognition. It would have taken a massive marketing budget to gain as much awareness for the Big Baller Brand in such a short period of time as LaVar Ball has been able to gain for free with his antics. However, the controversial nature of his comments and the brand’s current lack of depth make this a dangerous game. LaVar Ball has already turned many people off. He might say they’re the people he doesn’t want associated with his brand anyway, but he may find out the hard way that there really is such a thing as bad publicity.
Although the U.S. media delights in drama, this type of approach has a limited shelf life. If Lonzo’s NBA career takes off as the Balls hope, and if the two younger Ball sons deliver media-worthy sports performances of their own in the next year, that will bring greater recognition to the Big Baller Brand and give it something sustainable (and positive) to talk about. If that happens, using periodic obnoxious commentary to keep the brand in the news and interesting to consumers could be a viable strategy as long as LaVar Ball doesn’t overdo it. But if insults and inflated claims are the only thing LaVar Ball and his brand have to offer in the long run, he’ll likely end up losing the spotlight - and business - as consumers tire of his hot air. After all, willingness to pay high prices for a brand is rooted in wanting to be associated with what that brand stands for.
What’s up with that Foot Locker ad?
Even though Lonzo Ball was one of the stars of this year’s college basketball season and the number two pick in the NBA draft, his voice isn’t usually the one you hear thanks to his outspoken father. A lot of people have wondered whether LaVar’s cocky, overbearing approach benefits his son or will end up costing Lonzo millions of dollars. One of the best things Lonzo could have done for himself and the Big Baller Brand is exactly what he did: publicly make fun of his situation. The fact that he roasted his father on national TV in an ad for Foot Locker instantly made Lonzo a more sympathetic and likable figure. And after being subjected to so much of Ball Senior’s bluster, who among us wasn’t talking about this ad when it came out? It’s the perfect first step for Lonzo as he begins growing into his own public persona outside of his father’s shadow. Does the ad mean a possible future partnership between Foot Locker and the Big Baller Brand? Hard to say, and speculation on that point may be exactly what the Balls hoped to drive. Regardless, the spot is a win-win for Lonzo Ball and Foot Locker…and indirectly for the Big Baller Brand. I don’t know if LaVar Ball was behind it or had a hand in it, but whoever came up with the idea was pretty darn smart.