Kevin Durant used to be nice, but not anymore. At some point this season, the second-best player in the NBA stopped being the silent choirboy fans respected, and Nike and Wieden+Kennedy anticipated the change for their recent “KD Is Not Nice” campaign. Call it truth in advertising, because for whatever reason, Durant has really started to embrace the roll of edgy superstar.
Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Was Durant always this prickly before the ads came out a few months ago? Not quite. Now, cameras catch him cursing on the court. Many fans would be surprised to hear he has the third-most technical fouls in the NBA this year. His grandma even sent him a text message in January asking him to tone down the antics. Grandma Durant needs to try harder.
The Nike campaign has opened the door for Durant to emerge as a hungrier, angrier player on the court and a more intriguing personality off the court. Playing the good guy in the past made him a safe, yet unremarkable bet for endorsers. After last year’s NBA Finals, Durant only had a Q Score of 14, one point above the average for sports personalities. Experts predicted his brand appeal to grow slightly, but there’s a plateau for the nice-guy act. He starred in Thunderstruck over the summer, a movie that grossed $600,000 and made Kazaam look like Chinatown. On Super Bowl Sunday, viewers saw Lebron James pitch for Samsung while Durant was nowhere to be found.
With “KD Is Not Nice,” Durant finally stands out amongst his peers. The NBA is the league of superstars (and secondary stars), and those stars leverage their marketability into hero-worship commercials. On a given night, you can see a dozen basketball players in televised ads, many of which we’ve covered on AgencySpy. Durant’s current and former teammates Russell Westbrook and James Harden acted in a spot together last year. Then there’s Chris (Cliff) Paul, Blake Griffin, Lebron, Carmelo Anthony, Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard, Ricky Rubio, Jeremy Lin, etc. Even peripheral superfans like Spike Lee get to hawk goods and services in the name of basketball. Rarely does an endorser seek out the role of villain, but when it happens, the consequences are fascinating.
Playing the bad guy is the slipperiest of slopes, because based on previous examples—Allen Iverson, Charles Barkley, Ron Artest (I refuse to refer to him as World Peace)—the villain persona can consume the endorser. Great players quickly flame out and burn bridges with companies for taking the role too far. Barkley may be the exception to the rule, but even he had to deal with a cold period as he transitioned from volatile public figure to the jolly uncle without a filter. Durant’s Nike campaign politely nudges Barkley’s “I Am Not a Role Model” commercial, and I’m not suggesting Durant will go crazy, but he should be weary of how playing the villain can turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy that alienates investors.
So, be mean, Kevin Durant, but don’t be too mean. Don’t act so mean that you forget the most important part…winning. We’re paying attention to you. And for better or worse, we’re onto you, even if the dumb cops in your commercial can’t figure it out.
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