With a billion-plus Chinese audience guaranteed by Yao Ming, finding endorsement deals is like getting wet in the rain. Already Yao's 2003 endorsement deals are estimated at US$ 10 million.
But, the challenge for Yao should be signing on a dotted line that will create a valuable (and respectable) image for himself. In terms of reaching a Chinese audience, this isn't a problem. In China, Yao's image as a basketball superstar is already established. Regardless of what he puts his face on (so far China Unicom and Sorrent), he will always be a basketball star first and an endorser second. In terms of marketing in China and to the Chinese, Yao is set. But it is this guarantee of a billion people's love that might be the source of his marketing team's recklessness in the US.
Outside of China, where Yao is unknown and unproven, prudence should be his game, focusing on creating an image that he is going to live with for the rest of his professional career. Sadly, it seems that prudence has lost to avarice as the choices he has made run counter to the concept that a name/product relationship is a two-way street.
In the two televised advertisements currently featuring Yao, neither even identifies him as an athlete. Yao's TV spot in the US for Apple computers features him alongside 2-foot 8-inch Verne Troyer, the actor who played Mini-Me in the Austin Powers movies. Toyer has made a career out of his odd height, and here Yao appears to be doing the same. The message: I am freakishly tall, just like he's freakishly short. Another message: Furthering a stereotype Yao should be trying to discourage, Toyer watches a kung fu film while smiling up at his silent, seemingly dim-witted Asian inverse.
The other ad, for Visa check cards, is much worse. Gripping a garish I'm-a-dumb-tourist souvenir of the Statue of Liberty, Yao has his name confused with a New York cashier's vernacular "Yo." And, folks, that's the whole commercial. The message: I'm a dumb tourist who doesn't speak English.
The bottom line here is that these ads not only play on Yao's abnormal height and the fact that he "no speak English good," but they also aggressively promote these qualities to make them characteristic of who Yao is. While pandering to humor's lowest common denominator, these early forays into image molding risk the fact that Yao will never be seen as anything more than an imported novelty. Provided it's not already too late, Yao's next endorsement for Gatorade does promise the possibility of moving back on the right track. However, if the ad panders exclusively to his height or his foreignness or both, he's doomed.
Interestingly enough, Nike signed Yao several years ago but has yet to use him. Nike's contract with Yao ends this spring and no announcement has been made about renewal. Although it's hard to imagine that Nike won't keep Yao on retainer, in a November Houston Chronicle interview, a Nike spokeswoman stated that Nike was "not prepared to speculate at this time."
In a wacky twist, the brand to benefit most from association with Yao is Starbucks, which doesn't pay him a penny. Repeatedly, human-interest pieces mention the young man's penchant for buying Frappuccinos in bulk. And, unlike the endorsements for which we know he's been paid, the Starbucks mentions are authentic personal endorsements.
So what went wrong with Brand Yao? Let's look at his marketing team, Team Yao, as they humbly refer to themselves. This small group of advisers (including BDA sports management professionals, a University of Chicago business professor and a University of Chicago MBA student who is, surprise, a distant relative of Yao's) has expressed its fears about overexposing its golden goose, yet, in every media instance, it seems that Team Yao should be worried about overexposing itself.
Promoting your brand as a circus sideshow act is one thing. However, in a gluttonous pursuit of cash, Team Yao is handicapping not only Yao himself but also an already struggling movement against Asian stereotyping in America. Though unfaultable for not being an activist, Yao has plenty of opportunity to at least do no further harm. Unfortunately, it seems he's settled for a single moral stance: no alcohol ads; thankfully too, as one can only imagine the route the Budweiser creative team might take for a laugh.
Yao is hard to blame. As a 22-year-old foreigner thrown into the eight-figure fracas of pro-athlete endorsement deals his only real hope is good team dynamics. Too bad it seems that the only all-star on Team Yao is Yao himself.