Basketball Star Stands Far Above Previous Endorsers

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CHICAGO ( -- In signing pro basketball star Yao Ming to global endorsement deal, McDonald's Corp. is not only expanding its global reach, but also trying, perhaps,
Photo: AP
New McDonald's marketing icon Yao Ming meets sibling icon Ronald McDonald.
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to reverse some of the negative publicity it received from two other high-profile celebrity endorsers.

"His personality is that Mom would love her kids to have the values of Yao Ming," Larry Light, McDonald's executive vice president and global chief marketing officer, said in a press conference. "Young kids look up to Yao Ming. Yao Ming represents the values of our brand. He behaves the way we'd like our brand to be perceived."

The 'sweet spot'
Mr. Light said young adults are the "sweet spot" of the chain's image target.

"I'm very happy they picked me as their partner in this and hope we together can help a lot of kids," Mr. Yao said through an interpreter. "I have to admit I'm surprised I've attracted so many people that want to work with me and I thank them for their support."

Mr. Yao, who plays for the Houston Rockets, is in his second year with the National Basketball Association, and already was twice named as a starter to the All-star team by fan balloting, perhaps indicating the level of his appeal.

Global idea competition
McDonald's executives said the idea for aligning with Mr. Yao came well before problems arose with two of the fast-food chain's celebrity endorsers -- fellow basketball star Kobe Bryant and pop star Justin Timberlake -- and was one of the ideas pitched last April during McDonald's global idea competition.

"The discussions about Yao Ming were born in China," Mr. Light said. "We started thinking about it first as a Chinese opportunity and over time saw this as a huge global opportunity."

Last month, McDonald's didn't renew its endorsement contract with Mr. Bryant, who is a defendant in a sexual assault case. As for Mr. Timberlake, he has been very much in the public eye since his duet with Janet Jackson during the Super Bowl halftime show that lead to the infamous "wardrobe malfunction." During last weekend's Grammy Award telecast -- sponsored by McDonald's -- Mr. Timberlake apologized for offending anyone with the breast-baring stunt.

When asked whether McDonald's is taking action against Mr. Timberlake, Mr. Light repeated earlier statements that what happened at the Super Bowl was "completely innappropriate" and that Mr. Timberlake has publicly apologized for it. "Our relationship is ongoing and at this time I have no new plans to announce," he said.

Polling consumers
One executive said McDonald's is polling consumers to gauge whether they perceive Mr. Timberlake's image -- and consequently McDonald's -- differently since the scandal.

"We're always listening to our customers and this case is no different," a McDonald's spokeswoman said regarding the polling.

Neither McDonald's nor Mr. Yao would discuss the specifics of his contract, including whether it included a morality clause. "It is not a one-year relationship and Yao will appear in our advertising," Mr. Light said.

The Chinese superstar, known as the Little Giant, will be featured in numerous programs and marketing initiatives for McDonald's, including the Olympics, the global "I'm lovin' it" ad campaign, Ronald McDonald House Charities and World Children's Day.

He also will be one of several celebrity endorsers to support the chain's global "Go Active" health and fitness campaign to break later this spring that also will reposition Ronald McDonald as a spokesman for the program, which is targeted at children.

"Exercise and eating right are two very important things and I hope to support that," Mr. Yao said.

'Borderless brand'
"This was a major milestone in a new era of marketing for McDonald's," Mr. Light said. "We are building a borderless brand. Our advertising was born in Germany, our new store design concept was born in France, our new packaging was born in England, and now our new global brand ambassador was born in Shanghai."

China is considered a top priority; McDonald's plans to add 80 restaurants there, giving it 660 units by year-end.

McDonald's also is in preliminary discussions with the NBA to sponsor exhibition games in Shanghai and Bejing. "We have work in progress with discussing how we can be a big part of it," said Dean Barrett, senior vice president for global brand business.

"I'm very happy to be able to play at home and I'm also excited for fans in China to see two real NBA games over there," Mr. Yao said.

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