Tuesday, May 24, 2011

A Thirst For Winning

With the Chicago Bulls back in the national spotlight and the emergence of young Derrick Rose as one of the league’s most dominant players, Bulls fans are taken back to the days when another young player was beginning to take flight.  Michael Jordan's emergence would not only change the identity of Chicago and the game... but would also make him one of the most marketed sports figures in history. He was a winner, not only for his city, team and league, but also for any company lucky enough to have him endorse their product.

It was after winning his first National Basketball Association Championship in 1991, that Michael Jordan would begin a long relationship with Gatorade, which would commence with a commercial that would become part of pop culture and lift up two brands to unimaginable recognition and gain. The story of how Michael Jordan came to endorse Gatorade is legendary among marketers but the more captivating story is the origin of the lyrics and song that made the Gatorade commercial popular and made every kid want to Be Like Mike.

Jordan's 1st NBA Championship - 1991
It was 20 years ago when Jordan signed a lucrutive 10-year contract with Quaker Oats, to become Gatorade's exclusive spokesperson, rather than resigning with Coca-Cola.  After the contract was signed, the advertising firm of Quaker Oats made the decision to bring back its creative chief, Bernie Pitzel, to introduce Jordan and Gatorade to the world, as he was told.  One of the challenges that Pitzel soon learned was that prior to his arrival, a commercial had already been approved by Quaker Oats executives, which left him scratching his head since it was the same type of Jordan highlight reel commercial that other endorsers were using to sell their products.  To Pitzel’s dismay, Quaker Oats gave him only 3 days to come up with a new concept.  Upon returning home that evening, Pitzel sat down to watch Disney’s The Jungle Book with his son. When he heard the song "I Wan'na Be Like You," he immediately thought of a creative concept since he knew that a million people wanted to be like Michael Jordan due to his growing popularity.   

Originally, it was Pitzel's plan to use The Jungle Book music over the video, but he soon found out that Disney officials wanted $350,000 from Gatorade for a five-week commercial run in order to use the track.  As a result, he decided that he would write his own lyrics that would play off the concept that everyone wanting to be Jordan. Pitzel then went to his favorite Chicago restaurant, Avanzare, to do some creative thinking.  He soon started writing the following lyrics on the paper tablecloth: 

Sometimes I dream
That he is me
You've got to see that's how I dream to be
I dream I move, I dream I groove
Like Mike
If I could Be Like Mike
Again I try
Just need to fly
For just one day if I could
Be that way
I dream I move, I dream I groove
Like Mike
If I could Be Like Mike

Several hours later, he faxed a ripped tablecloth with the lyrics to four different local music companies, hopeful that one of them would orchestrate a tune that would fit well with his lyrics, since he only had 48 hours left.  One local pair of jingle writers took 'Be Like Mike' and really made it the chorus.  They then hired eight singers to sing the work, rather than one, which sold the concept that everyone wanted to be like Mike.  When finished, they knew that no other company would beat their catchy tune and Pitzel agreed.

Pitzel then drove up to Wisconsin to meet with Gatorade executives and to present the "Be Like Mike" lyrics and tune from a tape played on a boom box. Gatorade executives knew they had a winner. Pitzel then dreamed up the commercial's visual concept, which included a group of children trying to be like Mike in front of Jordan himself at a basketball court in Chicago.  Additional footage was filmed of Jordan playing a pick-up game with grown-ups, goofing around and drinking Gatorade.  These concepts tried to humanize Jordan since most thought of him as a basketball God.  And although we may not be able to fly through the air or play basketball like Michael, we can be like him and drink Gatorade.

Scene from the "Be Like Mike" Commercial

The commercial ended with the simple phrase "Be Like Mike. Drink Gatorade" and that is exactly what happened when it aired in August, 1991. It was a defining moment in Gatorade's history, lifting an already popular product to even greater heights.  It was a winner.

Jordan would go on to appear in over 20 Gatorade commericals, but "Be Like Mike" was the trend-setter because even today, you still hear kids and adults, singing the lyrics to "Be Like Mike".  In 2003, Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, wrote an article regarding Jordan's best commercials.  All of Jordan's commercials, covering all of his endorsed products, were considered and it wasn't a surprise that "Be Like Mike" was rated #1 because of its popular tagline and catchy tune.  I emailed Bernie Pitzel prior to our trip about the commercial and he replied, “That spot struck quite a chord…anything you can do to effect or become part of pop culture is a huge win.  Be Like Mike did just that.”  

So it was during the Chicago leg of our Illinois basketball trip, that we wanted to pay homage to Michael Jordan in some way, because he was such an influence to us growing up. Most basketball fans, when visiting Chicago,  gravitate to two locations to pay tribute to the greatest basketball player ever.  Most travel to the city’s west side and pose for pictures in front of the famous Jordan statue outside the United Center, while others drive to the Architectural Estates in the north suburbs of Highland Park to take a photo outside Jordan’s front gates (like we did).  But it was another location, a hidden gem of sorts, that we decided to locate to pay homage to not only Michael Jordan but to one of the backdrops for one of the greatest commercials.  

Front gates of Jordan's estate
We wound through various roads into the heart of the Highland Park suburb, until we came to Sunset Woods Park.  Thanks to the Park District of Highland Park, we were able to locate the outdoor basketball courts where Michael Jordan was filmed playing basketball with the kids trying to imitate him, with their between-the-leg dribbling and acrobatic shots.  The court has been replaced in recent years with a skate park but another court sets beside it.  So for an hour, we looked around the area, trying to imagine what it would have been like not only to work with Jordan on the set but also getting the chance, as a kid, to play basketball with him.  Prior to leaving, we played our traditional 2-on-2 game, as we do at all the gyms we visit.  And for a few shots, without trying to injure ourselves, we too tried to "Be Like Mike".

Skatepark (background) where the commercial was filmed
Sunset Woods Park

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