Brand Savvy: Why Nike’s Lifetime Contract with Lebron James is Branding Genius

Last month, Lebron James announced a lifetime deal with Nike—the first of its kind for the most recognizable athletic and fitness company in the world. Nike spent almost $1 billion on endorsements in 2015 and has sponsored some of the biggest names in sports; from tennis star Maria Sharapova, to golfer Tiger Woods, and soccer player Cristiano Ronaldo. Despite numerous major celebrity endorsements, Nike’s colossal deal with Lebron James might be one of the smartest sponsorships in its rich history of branding.

Previously, we spoke about Nike’s powerful use of brand image that catapulted them to their current level of recognition in the fitness industry . To create value and visibility for the brand, Nike tries to encompass an incredible number of facets into its logo. The Swoosh represents athleticism, sportsmanship, power, elevated performance, fitness, and even fashion and athleisure.

However, beyond connotations of “athletics,” Nike attempts to emphasis characteristics of courage, honor, a striving for excellence, and a supernatural (yet attainable) grace and gravitas unusual for a company one associates with shoes. No one would call Nike “just a shoe company” and Nike has accomplished this in large part due to its sponsorship of top tier athletes.

Celebrity endorsements bring a face and story to a brand. They help companies connect with their market audience on a human level, bringing an oftentimes up-and-down narrative their marketers can shape into a multi-million dollar story and campaign. In fact, Nike’s current dominance in the basketball market can be credited to their sponsorship of Michael Jordon, whose underdog image  captured the spirit of the NBA at one the league’s highest peaks in popularity.

In many ways, Lebron’s deal with Nike is a continuation of a tradition embedded in the brand’s 44-year history. Yet, what makes this deal different from Nike’s $60 million deal with Jordan or their $100 million over 5 years deal with Woods? What pushed Nike to pursue a lifetime contract when in 2003 they signed a $90 million 7 year deal and another in 2010 that reportedly made Lebron $30 million annually?

The fact is, Lebron is the ideal candidate for a lifetime deal because his personal brand meshes seamlessly with Nike. We live in an age where it is no longer uncommon for athletes to develop extensive personal branding campaigns (think Derek Jeter, Lance Armstrong, Carmelo Anthony. His site,, showcases his 4 personas: the Man, the Philanthropist, the Businessman, and the Athlete. Just as Nike is not only a shoe company, Lebron is not only a basketball player. His brand and biography provide an advertising campaign in it of itself.

For the generation of kids who will grow up seeing the dominance of Lebron on the basketball court, Nike’s brand and his image will be inseparable. Nike has pushed itself to be synonymous with the NBA and with high performance basketball shoes since releasing the Air Jordan. This lifetime contract solidifies their image association with basketball in perpetuity, just as Lebron’s name will likely exist within the league until the institution crumbles.

The four personas of Lebron James fulfill what the Swoosh promises: power, success, honor, hyper-athleticism and that elusive grace and gravitas that elevates the brand to the covetable level of recognition and reputation it rests at today.


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