Back in the old days, most pro athletes would sign almost any and every endorsement deal available. Hold the product, smile, cash the check.
Those days weren’t all that long ago (and still not completely gone), but LeBron James says his relationship with Blaze Pizza represents the future, forged in a culture of social media.
“Social media has totally changed how athletes should think about the companies or products they get behind,” James tells me. “This change has taken shape during my career. Athletes used to just take the endorsement deals to grab the cash. A drink deal, a fast food deal, a shoe deal, whatever other category or thing came your way. Now, you have to really think about the company. What do they stand for? What’s their marketing strategy? If I’m going to partner with someone, I need to be comfortable with taking you directly to my fans through my channels. It’s a totally different perspective from when I started.”
James became an investor in Blaze Pizza in 2012, then in 2015 left about $15 million of McDonald’s money on the table to become an official commercial brand ambassador for Blaze. His involvement–and massive fanbase–is a big part of why the company has been able to go from three to 300 restaurants across the U.S. (and a few in Canada) in just six years. That 300th store is set to open in Vancouver in mid-November, and according to research firm Technomic, Blaze’s 2017 sales were up 49%, to $271 million.
But the Los Angeles Lakers’s newest superstar would never have gotten involved if the concept, strategy, and product quality wasn’t there. “From day one, the best thing about Blaze has always been the quality of the product,” he says. “That’s the first thing that drew me to it. When you have a really good product that people enjoy, everything else takes care of itself. It’s also a brand that has been able to set itself apart in an increasingly crowded market, and that all goes back to the quality.”
Blaze cofounders Rick and Elise Wetzel say that was the plan all along. It wasn’t that long ago that a failed lunch mission to find some decent pizza in Pasadena, California, led them to a Chipotle and their a-ha moment. With a background in consumer packaged goods marketing and new product development at Nestle, the question that kept nagging them as they waited for their burritos was, “Why can’t we do this with pizza?”
“If you want to know why this worked, I think one of our keys was operating from the assumption that our guests were intelligent,” says Elise. “They know the difference between fast food and food served fast. So many communities don’t have good, healthy options for fast food. We knew enough about pizza to know that the nice pizza we ate at a restaurant for $15, we could do that for $8. Wouldn’t it be a big idea if we could make restaurant-quality pizza at lunch speed at that price point?”
The cofounders credit James with putting their brand awareness into hyperdrive. “That was a big way to make us stand out,” says Rick. “It legitimizes a brand when you have a credible spokesperson.”
They loved having James as an investor, but didn’t quite jump at the opportunity when the NBA legend said he wanted to become a franchisee. “We had to explain to him that we only let restaurant operators run our restaurants, not pro basketball players,” says Rick. “So we teamed him up with Larry Levy, and they secured the rights to Chicago and Miami.”
LeBron and Levy (founder of Chicago-based food service giant Levy Restaurants) now have 20 locations, with a 21st opening at the end of this month. As soon as James hung up the golden arches, the Wetzels knew his relationship with Blaze, and how the brand and the basketball star worked together, would be anything but conventional.
“We don’t use him on cups and billboards, but he talks about the brand,” says Rick. “It adds authenticity to us, because he’s a very authentic person.”
Over the last couple of years, James has done things as low-key as simply posting a pizza pic to Instagram, or creating a video in which he pretends to be a new employee behind the counter. That one, when LeBron became Ron, racked up more than 2 million YouTube views.
“He uses his own voice,” says Elise. “We don’t write what he says about Blaze. It’s all LeBron. When he posted his Blaze app online order, that was his spontaneous idea, and it was brilliant. The conversation it sparked was amazing, people started coming in and trying to order his pizza. That’s the kind of magic he unlocks.”
James knows that he’s in a very privileged position, even among pro athletes, in terms of his ability to pick and choose not only what brands he teams up with, but also the nature of those partnerships.
“A lot changes when you’re in a position to be really selective, it’s liberating and so much more fun,” says James. “I can focus my energy now on the opportunities that mean the most to me personally. I can structure deals to take more risk when it makes sense to do that. But more than anything, it’s about putting real energy into opportunities I believe in, and saying no to things I don’t. I would rather have more time to help Blaze than take on a bunch of other commitments I’m not personally interested in.”
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LeBron James on Blaze Pizza and how it’s the key to understanding his own brand strategy