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Photo credit: New Balance

Photo credit: New Balance

New Balance is perceived as the epitome of the dad sneaker, made popular, in part, by Steve Jobs. Originally founded as the New Balance Arch Support Company in 1906, New Balance is not recognized as being in a class with traditionally bold sporting brands like Nike or Adidas, whose revenues, individually, exceeded that of New Balance fourfold in 2017. The company has been mocked for its lackluster “N” logo, its nerdy brand perception, and its “outdated” sneaker design.

In recent years, New Balance has made great efforts to generate a new brand perception. However, its biggest triumph hasn’t involved rebranding or new, high-fashion shoe designs. Instead, in 2018, the brand gambled on the Toronto Raptors' then-newest acquisition, Kawhi Leonard, to relaunch its basketball shoe collection—and it’s safe to say that their bet paid off.

As the Raptors celebrated their first ever NBA championship title in Toronto last week, we couldn’t help but reflect on the lessons of New Balance’s winning bet on Kawhi Leonard and what brands can learn about the importance of staying true to their values.

The art of choosing an ambassador

When he was traded to the Raptors in 2018, Kawhi Leonard was an unknown entity to many Toronto sports fans. Even for the initiated, he was something of an anomaly, with no social media accounts and an understated personality that branded him as, frankly, a bit of a bore.

New Balance made the risky decision to partner with an athlete who lacked the charisma of, say, LeBron James, P. K. Subban, Roger Federer or Usain Bolt, and who was unable to give the brand valuable Instagram visibility.

What New Balance likely recognized, however, was that Leonard’s values were a perfect match with those of the brand. What he lacked in charisma, he made up for with an honest, focused playing style that closely matched New Balance’s own commitment to consistent quality. Indeed, a partnership based on shared values should be every brand’s first priority when choosing an ambassador.

Timeliness is key

Another secret to the success of this partnership is how New Balance managed to capitalize on the shifting tide of public emotion as the Raptors progressed through the playoffs and Leonard became their object of devotion.

Having Leonard wear New Balance shoes on the court was an obvious move, but having him wear the brand off the court was also key. In the age of Instagram and Twitter, players have become accustomed to parading their outfits before the cameras while strolling into the locker room before game time. Fans are beginning to care more about what they see in these snapshots than glimpses of on-court sneaker swag. This is what New Balance understood, capitalizing on candid moments and seizing golden opportunities to position the brand off the court.

First off, New Balance offered fans a way to honour Kawhi, right in the heat of the moment. For example, the brand produced special-edition T-shirts with popular Leonard catchphrases like “Fun Guy” and “Board Man Gets Paid.” Both items sold out in less than 60 seconds after being released, and Leonard fever became an inferno. Of course, Leonard sported the “Board Man Gets Paid” edition during the Raptors victory parade in Toronto, reaching eyeballs across the globe via traditional and social media.

Through its agility and ability to keep its finger on the public pulse, New Balance created opportunities to connect with consumers on the all-important emotional level, while generating earned visibility along the way.

It goes without saying that selecting a pro athlete as a brand ambassador isn’t exactly a new tactic. However, finding creative ways to challenge the status quo is something we at NATIONAL believe is key to building a successful brand and to strengthening relationships with consumers. Letting shared values shine through and always keeping up on the latest buzz is how both the Board Man and brands get paid.