The television spot for WorldCom Inc. plays off a simple joke: Basketball superstar Michael Jordan, having signed up as spokesman for the No.4 long-distance company, finds out that as part of the deal, he's expected to cold-call consumers to get them to switch carriers. The spot ends with Jordan on the pay phone in the locker room, plowing dutifully through the phone book.
Turns out it's no joke. Jordan has been doing some high-level pitching for WorldCom to a select group of executives--at the large companies that are also his sponsors. It's a gold-plated prospect list that includes Nike, McDonald's, Quaker Oats, Sara Lee, and Wilson Sporting Goods. Their corporate business would be a boon to WorldCom, which at $5.4 billion in annual revenue trails far behind the long-distance Big Three: AT&T, MCI Communications, and Sprint.
EXTRA VALUE. Jordan's efforts represent the latest twist in the marketing strategy devised for him by agent David B. Falk. The idea: If Jordan makes a personal effort to generate business for his sponsors, his value as a spokesman will increase--along with the price he can command for future endorsement deals. "Our job is to use Michael's influence to explain the synergy" possible between sponsors, says Falk, who calls this push "Michael Jordan's Corporate Partner Program." With many of Jordan's endorsement deals extending as far as 10 years in the future, Falk predicts that three or four Jordan sponsors eventually will hook up with WorldCom. And WorldCom says it would be interested in hooking up with other Jordan partners. "It's a logical network, isn't it?" says a spokeswoman.
The prototype for this network was Jordan's 1996 hit movie, Space Jam. Every Jordan sponsor got a plug in the animated flick just for being associated with him. Now Falk envisions all sorts of deals that his star could help put together. He figures Jordan might persuade WorldCom to insert McDonald's coupons in its mailings, or get Sara Lee's Coach leather-goods unit to promote sales of backpacks by offering samples of Bijan Fragrances' Michael Jordan cologne.
With Jordan, 34, nearing the end of his playing career, adding a little extra juice to his endorsement deals makes sense, say marketing gurus. "Falk has been innovative in so many ways with Michael," says David Burns, founder of Chicago-based Burns Sports Celebrity Service Inc., which matches athletes with advertising agencies. The agent, for example, has limited the star's endorsements to around a dozen major companies, which together pay Jordan an estimated $40 million a year. However, even Falk concedes that he's unlikely ever to find another athlete who matches Jordan's nearly universal appeal--and whom he can turn into what he calls a "superbrand."
So far, however, the synergy among sponsors remains theoretical. Just because Michael Jordan comes calling, major corporations such as Quaker or Nike are unlikely to switch their huge phone contracts. "I doubt it will have much, if any, influence on a decision that could not be independently rationalized and supported," says marketing consultant George Rosenbaum of Chicago's Leo J. Shapiro & Associates. Quaker already has turned Jordan down. "MCI is our long-distance carrier. We're sticking with them for the foreseeable future," says spokesman Ron Bottrell. Similarly, Nike sees little potential for cross-pollination. "Fundamentally, our business objectives are different than any other of Michael's partners," says Erin Patton, Nike's director of basketball products and marketing.
Falk admits that Jordan can't force his sponsors to change vendors, but he believes they will eventually come around. "It's in everyone's interest to do this," he says. And some Jordan-inspired cross-promotion already is in the works. In WorldCom's summer ad campaign, actors will wear Oakley sunglasses, endorsed by Jordan, and outfits from Wilson. And Falk is pushing corporate partners to put their logos on WorldCom phone cards.
If Jordan can't start making sales, he might try some incentives--like playoff tickets for CEOs. Now that would be real synergy.