Mutombo pioneers new marketing strategy

October 19, 1991|By Thomas S. Mulligan | Thomas S. Mulligan,Los Angeles Times

Dikembe Mutombo is the kind of athlete who's determined to make it to the top with nothing more than his basketball talent and his native wit.

And his business agent, his marketing agent, his college coach, his record producer, his video crew, his photographer, his publicist, his makeup person ...

Promoters of Mutombo, a 7-foot-2 native of Zaire in central Africa and rookie center for the Denver Nuggets, can hardly wait for him to be a superstar.

And why should they?

In the olden days of sports marketing, you practically had to be in the Hall of Fame before a cigarette company would put you on its billboards.

But today, one trading card publisher specializes in draft picks college prospects who have never played a minute of professional ball. Kids buy the cards like lottery tickets, hoping a future Michael Jordan is lurking.

That, in a sense, is what the people at DIC Sports Marketing are trying to do with Mutombo. He may not be the next Michael Jordan. But if he is, they're not going to leave any money on the table.

Recent newcomers to the sports world not just entertainment firms such as DIC, but also Hollywood lawyers and accountants think sports has been too passive in exploiting its marketing opportunities.

There are valuable lessons to learn from the movie business and Madison Avenue, they say. To be sure, the outcome of a game can't be known in advance, but that doesn't mean a script can't be written for what happens off court.

"The idea is to develop a positioning and a marketing plan not to just sit back and be order-takers," said Andy Heyward, president and majority owner of DIC Enterprises, the Burbank, Calif., cartoon production house that spawned DIC Sports Marketing last summer.

In the 1980s, DIC (pronounced deek) helped turn cartoon production into a low-margin, quick-turnaround business, like the garment industry.

You start with a property, preferably a well-known figure who appeals to kids. Pro wrestler Hulk Hogan, say. You create a story line around your star. You ship a batch of scripts to the manufacturer in Taiwan, where an assembly line of animators can pump out cartoons much cheaper than at home. Then you use the shows to cross-sell the ancillary merchandise, such as cereal and toys.

It's a winning formula, and it vaulted DIC in just 10 years from nowhere to the No. 1 spot in the Saturday morning cartoon lineup the only studio with at least one show on every network (including Fox) in kiddie primetime.

From his work on cartoons including the new "Pro Stars" show featuring Jordan, Wayne Gretzky and Bo Jackson Heyward came to realize that in a marketing sense, an athlete and a cartoon hero aren't all that different.

"You position him as a character in the marketplace," he said.

Mutombo's position at least the working version, developed in marathon brainstorming sessions among DIC creative people is as "Dikembe Mutombo, The Natural Superstar." As soon as they're sure of the approach, Heyward said, they'll trademark it.

DIC's dream would be to propel Mutombo the No. 4 pick in this year's National Basketball Association draft, but by no means a guaranteed star into the marketing stratosphere occupied by Jordan, the Chicago Bulls' all-world guard.

Though it's hard to quibble with the way Jordan has been handled Forbes magazine estimated his off-court earnings at $13.2 million, four times his basketball salary Heyward quibbled.

In his office recently, Heyward pointed out a Michael Jordan watch with a cartoon caricature that only vaguely resembled the likeness on Michael Jordan t-shirts or more to the point the Michael Jordan character on DIC's "Pro Stars" series.

Such inconsistency bespeaks a lack of control over Jordan's image, the natty, 42-year-old Heyward said. It won't happen with Mutombo, he vowed.

"A Dikembe Mutombo toothbrush is not going to look any different than a Dikembe Mutombo lunchbox," Heyward declared.

To enforce consistency, DIC uses a "style book." When salespeople go out to sell Mutombo, they will carry a glossy, ring-bound book. It will have pictures of Mutombo in street clothes, in game uniform, in a wide array of poses.

And it will have a character sketch with background details, simplified and condensed, to guide advertisers, so they don't fuzz up the image with incongruous tie-ins.

Here are a few of Mutombo's selling points: Comes from middle-class family in Kinshasa, Zaire. Speaks French, English, Spanish, Portuguese and five African dialects. Has incredibly low body-fat ratio of 1.8 percent. (Forget junk-food endorsements!) At Georgetown University, was great shot-blocker and rebounder, so-so scorer. Was one of the few first-round picks in NBA draft who held a degree (linguistics and diplomacy) on draft day. Doesn't chase women or use drugs. Keeps up with world events. Reads.

That's the raw material. The key is how you work it up.

The languages and the international flavor make Mutombo perfect for AT&T, Heyward thinks. The lean physique and the clean-living angle would work for the National Dairy Council or an orange juice maker, maybe a health food company. (Heyward speaks quickly and carves the air with his hands when he's spinning out these ideas.) Fast foods are a possibility, but the "natural" aspect would have to be played up, perhaps with salads.

As an advertising vehicle, Mutombo clearly has potential. But everybody knows the wheels fall off if he can't play NBA basketball.

In his first few pro games since the start of the exhibition season last week, Mutombo has been a solid, if not dominating, player. Said Phoenix Suns Coach Cotton Fitzsimmons: "Mutombo is a little crude, but he's a strong young man and I'd like him on my team."

Against the lowly Los Angeles Clippers this week, he guided the Nuggets to their first exhibition win, leading all scorers with 24 points and 14 rebounds.

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