Slam dunk: How Kia and Blake Griffin have embraced the 'challenger spirit' in NBA sponsorship

Doug Zanger explores how Kia Motors has become part of the NBA fabric, from its 'kindred spirit' agency David&Goliath through to its relationship with Los Angeles Clippers forward Blake Griffin.

There are simply some moments for brands that are magical; those instances when it becomes less about just the brand and more about the stratospheric attention, when something happens at the right moment, in the right context.

The coalescing of both for Kia was famously clear at the 2011 Sprite Slam Dunk Contest during NBA All-Star Weekend in Los Angeles when Blake Griffin, Kia brand ambassador and Los Angeles Clippers forward, soared over the hood of a Kia Optima to win the competition. It was equal parts athleticism, theatrics and NBA approval to bring it all together.

“Blake had to prove to the league that he could do it first,” says Tim Chaney, director of marketing for Kia Motors America. “They didn’t want it to be some experiment he tried for the first time at the dunk contest.”

Chaney wasn’t even allowed in the Staples Center to watch the trial but, in the final analysis, Griffin passed with flying colors. With that, it became a part of dunk contest and brand lore.

“We call it ‘the gift that keeps on giving,’” says Chaney.

Kia’s agency of record, David&Goliath (D&G), knew that this was coming and made it a point to capitalize on a truly defining moment for the brand and, by extension, the El Segundo, California based independent. Knowing that the internet was about to “be broken” over the dunk, Colin Jeffery, D&G’s managing partner and chief creative officer, set up a ‘war room’ in a hotel across from the Staples Center, ready to pepper the world with high-quality versions of what is now an iconic moment.

“We had cameras in the crowd and used a Phantom (a specialized slo-mo camera) for slow motion down in front. We shot thousands of frames a second — tons of footage — but we wanted to have a unique take on it since everyone in the arena was about to send their own versions of the dunk out,” recalls Jeffery. “Not only that, we were working quickly to get various versions together and instant approvals from the client.”

Not only did they pull it off, they owned the internet because of the quality — and it signaled that Kia and D&G had taken the next step. “It was amazing,” says Jeffery. “A fun first.”

It was not the brand’s first foray into the league, but a call to the rest of the automotive world that Kia truly had arrived.

A growing brand sees opportunity

When the Kia brand launched in the United States in 1994, it had to overcome major perception issues. There were only two models and the quality wasn’t considered very good. Chaney notes that in the early years it was an immature company with poor-quality products. In the early 2000s, Kia introduced a 10-year, 100,000-mile warranty — something unheard of in the industry.

“It was a way to reduce risk for consumer purchase of an unknown product that had sketchy quality, so we marketed heavily on a 10-year warranty,” says Chaney. “Then, we created a personality that was different from the rest of the automotive industry — that was fun, didn’t take itself too seriously, humble, honest, and trying not to follow the conventions of automotive advertising – as best we could. It was really by necessity, because we didn’t have things to talk about in the products,” he recalled.

“When you look back in time, where Kia was years ago, basically two models, they were the butt of ‘Late Night’ jokes with Jay Leno,” recalls D&G founder and chairman David Angelo. “He constantly made fun of us, and it was easy to find an article every day of a Kia either breaking down or catching on fire. You had all of that going against you, so when the world hates you and they know that your quality isn’t great, what do you do? You have only one choice, and that is to embrace your challenger spirit and be self-effacing and human.”

However, the South Korea-based auto manufacturer made a serious commitment to improving quality and introduced more models, including the Kia Soul, which was the beneficiary of some seriously creative, funny and highly-awarded work — especially the ‘Hamster’ campaigns, led by Jeffery.

As perception continued to change, the brand continued to search for opportunity to scale with great support and understanding from the parent company in South Korea. Sports seemed to be a good place to grow. Kia has long been a sports marketing powerhouse with Fifa World Cup and Australian Open deals in place — and Chaney and his team dug deep to unearth what would work best in the US. In the final analysis, the NBA afforded the best opportunity and ticked off important ‘musts’ — a high-profile platform that engages and reaches men and multicultural major markets.

In 2006 Kia dipped its toes in the NBA waters with single team sponsorship deals — as high as 16 at one point — but it was when a key league partnership opened up that it really started to become part of the fabric of the league, as opposed to just a sponsor. The league was willing to be creative and the brand obliged by snapping up opportunity as much as it could.

“The NBA created a number of custom assets for us,” says Chaney. ‘Kia NBA Tip Off Week’ was developed for us, so was the ‘Kia NBA Performance Awards.’ Then we took the all-star game and a few other things with it. We layered the league sponsorship on top of a number of the team deals, and then we began building out the media side with four parts: league, teams, media, and player endorsements.”

Broadcast partners add even more layers

“We had a broad national media deal with ESPN with what eventually became ‘The Kia NBA Countdown,’” Chaney explains. “Then, when the Turner Broadcasting relationship for ‘Inside the NBA’ show became available, we pounced on that as well to brand it as ‘Presented by Kia.’ We had the two major shows with the games all during the week. Then, of course the last piece was a player endorsement.”

Not yet fully on track with the final piece — the player endorsement — the phone rang and started one of the strongest brand/athlete relationships in sports.

“They said, ‘Blake would like to dunk over a Kia at the All-Star game,’” recalls Chaney. “We quickly returned that call.”

It wouldn’t be the only surprise outreach from an NBA star.

Surprise, serendipity, skepticism

Seemingly out of the blue, Griffin showed interest in the brand and quickly became tapped as a strong brand ambassador for the Optima model. But another call presented an unexpected opportunity — LeBron James, one of the planet’s most recognizable stars, was keen on Kia’s new luxury offering, the K900.

“He was curious about it,” says Chaney. “We recognized he still had a fleet of other cars, and by no means would it be his exclusive car, but there was a genuine like for the product. His influence in trendsetting and appeal was very, very strong. We felt that he could give it an aura of credibility as our first luxury product, which people didn’t expect from Kia.”

Before James even began actually driving the car as an official ambassador, he tweeted about how much he liked it — “Rolling around in my K900. I love this car.” The brand didn’t even know that was coming — there was no deal in place at the time — and social media exploded with a number of people expressing skepticism that James wasn’t just doing it for a paycheck.

“I’ll bet anyone $10,000,000 that LeBron doesn’t roll up to the games in a Kia,” read one tweet.

That proved to be great fodder for an ad that called out the Twitter troll and further ensconced the fact that James has true, authentic love for the product.

Authenticity is huge for the brand and both Angelo and Jeffery. Working with athletes can present a number of challenges — they’re not actors — but they have found willing, talented and collaborative partners with both James and Griffin.

Naturally funny, and very much at ease in front of the camera, Griffin fully appreciates the opportunity to be himself.

“They [Kia] are willing to take a unique approach to selling cars and craft campaigns that play to my sense of humor,” says Griffin.

“It is a collaborative effort and, as a consequence, every script is not only something I would really say, but also how I would say it. They really do let me be me.”

For his part, Jeffery knew that he was working with someone who was going to get his hands dirty.

“We learned very early on in the relationship that Blake has this great comedic timing. He’s a natural actor. He loves being part of the process. He writes and works on the scripts with us,” says Jeffery.

“One of the best things about working with Kia and David&Goliath is that I am intimately involved in the creative process, from concept stages to actually writing lines. Everything you see, I have weighed in on from the beginning,” adds Griffin.

The inherent talents of both the D&G team and Griffin are manifest in a body of work that is quirky, interesting, legitimately authentic and decidedly ‘Blake Griffin,’ including a 2013 time travel campaign where a ‘future’ Blake Griffin gives his younger self sage wisdom, like practicing free throws and not wearing jean shorts.

“He’s basically admitting in public that his free throws suck, which they did at the time,” says Jeffery. “We read the script to him. He laughed and he was good about it — we put it on air, and next season, he came back and his free throws were radically improved, but he put it out there.”

“Why not bring that out?” posits Angelo. “Find a way to wrap that up in a way that promotes the Optima but also is true to who he is.”

Risk, trust and the challenger brand

Griffin, as a brand, is a challenger. James, a well-established global megastar, still embraces the challenger’s ethos and takes nothing for granted.

Kia is certainly a challenger in the way it approaches the industry — even as it has become second in product quality, according to JD Power, behind Porsche and well ahead of comparable competitors.

Being challenger brands necessitates a degree of bucking convention; being aggressive, true and experimental. Kia needed the kind of nurturing that some agencies may shy away from. It needed an agency that was willing to take some chances as well.

D&G, as a fiercely independent agency, walks the challenger line daily — and was born out of Angelo taking a significant risk to take on this one account and move his family from New York.

“I was working in New York at a place called Cliff Freeman & Partners, as the executive creative director,” Angelo recalls. “My wife was pregnant, and I just decided to take some time off. Everybody thought I was crazy. I was freelancing, and then I got a call from one of my closest friends asking me to do the one thing I’ve always wanted to do, and that’s start my own agency. He said, ‘Listen, Kia Motors, they’re looking for a creative person that they can build an agency around, and they heard about you. They want to talk to you.’”

The first call to Kia made the choice, and the opportunity, abundantly clear.

“The first question I had was, ‘Do I have to leave New York?’ They said, ‘Well, we’re in Irvine (California), and if you don’t, it’s going to be a long commute for you.’ I packed up the family and moved out here. It started November of 1999. It’ll be 16 and a half years.”

Brand/agency tenure can be incredibly fleeting and the longevity of the Kia/D&G relationship is the exception rather than the rule.

“Thank God David jumped at the opportunity,” says Chaney. “We always saw them as a kindred spirit to us, more like family. They were created for us. They gave us their full attention. We were both upstarts, challenger brands. We still retain that chip on our shoulder to this day.”

The Kia business was put into review in 2004, with D&G retaining the account — and there hasn’t been a review since, pointing to the inherent trust both brand and agency have for each other with Chaney noting that the agency bleeds Kia red, its success going “hand in hand with Kia’s.”

As for the future of the brand’s evolution, Angelo sees a bright story ahead.

“We have a philosophy here. When you’re building a brand, it’s almost like you’re writing a book. There’s the title of the book. Let’s just call it ‘The Book of Kia.’ You open up the first chapter, and it’s basically the manifesto, the introduction of the brand. The first chapter talks about the Optima. Maybe it’s the NBA campaign. Second, Super Bowl and Sorento,” says Angelo.

“Each chapter has to get better and better and better, so you have to try to constantly make that book, all those chapters, worth reading so people don’t put the book down. You’re building this really amazing story, and when you get to the end, you simply start a new book.”

This feature was first published in The Drum's second US print edition. Subscribe to The Drum here.

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