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New Balance's partnership with 'Fun Guy' Kawhi Leonard pays off through Raptors playoff run

From the onset, it seemed like a bit of an odd match: a sporting brand with little presence in the hyper-competitive basketball market, paired with a quiet player who seems to loathe the spotlight and rarely shows any emotion.

With Kawhi Leonard as the face of its basketball division, New Balance is trying to shed its image as the manufacturer of your dad’s favourite shoes and become the next cool name in the sport.

And if shoe sellouts and social media attention are any indication, the unlikely partnership seems to be paying off.

TORONTO, ONTARIO - MAY 30: Kawhi Leonard #2 of the Toronto Raptors reacts against the Golden State Warriors in the second quarter during Game One of the 2019 NBA Finals at Scotiabank Arena on May 30, 2019 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

When New Balance was looking for a new player to become the face of its basketball brand, it didn’t want to just sign the next star looking for a lucrative endorsement, says Patrick Cassidy, the company’s global director of consumer marketing.

“We wanted somebody who had a creative vision, who wanted to be engaged and almost be an entrepreneur and help build this category for us,” he said in an interview with Yahoo Finance Canada.

“We were looking for a true independent thinker in a sea of sameness.”

Leonard certainly brings a bit of uniqueness to the table. In a league that’s full of loud and often outspoken personalities, Leonard is reserved and even-keeled, preferring to let his basketball prowess do the talking. And it’s that understated, demeanour – alongside his insane skill – that appealed to New Balance.

“He’s one of the best – if not the best – players in the world. Who better to validate our basketball performance and credibility than a guy like that?” Cassidy said.

New Balance, a private company, signed a multi-year deal with Leonard in November. (The company has not disclosed the terms of the agreement and would not discuss sales figures.)

In the very first meeting between Leonard and the New Balance marketing team, Cassidy said the superstar came ready with a list of questions focusing on the company’s interest in basketball and why it was investing in the sport now.

“He was not afraid to ask straight up questions right out of the gate. I thought, ‘Oh man. This guy has done his homework’,” Cassidy recalls.

“He was very engaged. We were talking about a vision before we even had a finished basketball product or department or anything in place.”

The first ad that rolled out during NBA’s All Star Weekend emphasized Leonard’s skills (“Kawhi doesn’t need your attention. He already has it. Game speaks for itself,” the 40-second video said.) Since then, and particularly throughout the Toronto Raptors playoff run, New Balance has been launching new products and unveiled splashy advertising in both Toronto and Oakland.

There was a billboard above Toronto’s Eaton Centre mall that showed a stern-looking Leonard with his arms crossed beside the caption “fun guy”, a line from Leonard’s first press conference as a Toronto Raptor which he delivered in his usual monotone voice. Another unveiled a short time later proclaimed him “King of the North.”

New Balance ended up taking that moment and issuing a limited release of a ‘Fun Guy’ t-shirt, which sold out in select stores and online in mere minutes. In Toronto, fans lined up outside the stores in the hopes of getting their hands on a t-shirt.

“Anytime you see lines outside of a sneaker store for something that isn’t a sneaker release is noteworthy,” Cassidy said. “It was a validation of what we were seeing across our digital channels and the idea that, man, people love Kawhi Leonard.”

Cheri Bradish, a sports marketing professor at Ryerson University, said the partnership checks all the boxes of being a successful campaign, which includes launching merchandise and advertisements in the right way at the right time.

“Kawhi may be a quiet person, but I think what they’ve done is respond to that in a very thoughtful way,” Bardish said.

“It was smart and clever how they decided to build this brand campaign. And it’s stuck, which is really important when it comes to sports marketing.”

Cassidy says New Balance doesn’t plan on rushing into new deals with additional NBA players anytime soon.

“There’s no part of our plan where we’re killing ourselves to be the biggest basketball brand on the planet. That’s just not part of it,” Cassidy said.

“We will probably have at most five to 10 athletes over the next several years. But we want them to be athletes who are cut from a different cloth, who have that independent spirit and who want to follow their own blueprint.”

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