NBA and Translation: The Marketing of a Cultural Juggernaut

Kate Jhaveri, Ann Wool and Jason Campbell unpack 'NBA Lane' and the league's vision for content

Whether the Golden State Warriors or the Boston Celtics end up prevailing in the NBA Finals—as of this writing, the Warriors are up 3-2 ahead of Game 6 on Thursday—the NBA season has been one to remember.

With help from longtime agency partner Translation, the league has been celebrating its 75th anniversary since the season tipped off Oct. 19. Translation created a season-long campaign called "NBA Lane," imagining a fictional street where NBA legends, old and new, live and play together—and have been working with NBA Entertainment to capture more content released across platforms.

Here's the most recent "NBA Lane" spot, created for the Finals:

NBA Lane | The Final Delivery | #NBA75

To get a sense of how the NBA and Translation work together to harness the league's incredible (and global) cultural power—and how that's expressed in the work—Muse spoke with three key players in the marketing mix: Kate Jhaveri, the NBA's CMO; Ann Wool, president of Translation; and Jason Campbell, the agency's head of creative.

We spoke about "NBA Lane," the challenges of simplifying the message in a complex media landscape, going as deep as the fans with content, and more.

Muse: Ann and Jason, you both joined Translation in 2020. The agency won the NBA account way back in 2014. What was the vision for NBA marketing when you joined?

Ann Wool: When you join a company like Translation, you're very aware of those heritage relationships. The NBA is one of them. State Farm is another. Beats is fast become another. The relationship between our respective teams goes long and deep. The one thing about the NBA is that people, once they're there, generally stick around. It gives us both new and historical perspective. Coming in, it was clearly a priority client and a priority relationship. So you belly up to the bar and pay special attention to those relationships. And not only that, I mean, it's the NBA. There's not a lot more fun jobs for us than working with the NBA—the subject matter and the energy and the audience that we are so good at. We were also just beginning to have conversations about the 75th anniversary when I first arrived. And then in the summer of 2021, "NBA Lane" was born.

Jason, there's no bigger cultural juggernaut, probably in the world, than the NBA. For an agency that positions itself as experts on culture, it must be the perfect client.

Jason Campbell: It is. I've been a fan of basketball since the '90s Knicks, so I'm a Patrick Ewing fan. I was a fan growing up in Kingston, Jamaica. I was collecting basketball cards. This thing was close to me way, way before. So I understood on a personal level what the impact of it was. As you said, there's not many things that have that level of impact—culturally, societally, globally—and it all reverberates from the game itself. It's a privilege, especially in the 75th year, to tell that story.

I would wonder if one challenge is it's almost too big of a story to tell. Every player has a brand, every team has a brand. It's global. It reaches across industries. I'd be freaked out trying to capture all this in a way that's simple.

Kate Jhaveri: The essence of the league comes down to three key takeaways: The importance of meeting fans where they are with content how they want it; operating as a values-based organization; and uplifting and supporting our players in their on- and off-court endeavors. Throughout our history, basketball has brought people together and served as a bridge across many different communities. It is an inclusive game by nature—drawing in fans with the incredible on-court talent and the culture that surrounds it from fashion, music, social causes, innovation and social media.

Translation's creative vision truly aligns with the league's culture and goals. Their strength is evident in the way they consistently push the limits of what's possible, which is why they continue to be one of the agencies we work with.

Jason Campbell: "NBA Lane" allowed us to create a world where you could actually explore all these tentacles of the thing, and you didn't have to do it the same way repetitively. When you do great campaigns, you create worlds you can tell stories in, and we found one that was really well positioned for the time and the place and year. But it was definitely intimidating because of the impact of it. It's not like other sports where it just sits on the field. It trickles out to everywhere else.

NBA Lane | “Welcome to NBA Lane” | #NBA75

To me, it feels like the Nike World Cup soccer campaigns of 10, 15 years ago. The World Cup exists beyond the field in the same way the NBA exists beyond the court. And you can bring in cultural icons beyond the players.

Jason Campbell: I spent three years working on that. I understand that formula—when you have a thing that is culturally relevant, you can pull more in. It was an interesting build for us in the 75th year to not just focus on the 75 players who encapsulated the greatness of the league but to show, "Hey, this thing actually stretches out to the guy who's making the funny videos about LeBron. It stretches out even more to the WNBA, and the little kids who are coming up, and our fans, too." The Nike work wasn't a direct reference point, but that's what the NBA brand is, and what the game is.

What were the initial thoughts about what the shape of the 75th anniversary campaign should be?

Kate Jhaveri: Our vision for "NBA Lane" was to honor the league's past, present and future. The campaign tapped into fans' favorite memories with the goal of evoking a nostalgic feeling and looking ahead to creating new ones, by celebrating our NBA players today. We aimed for fans to walk away feeling like the NBA is the most vibrant community in the world—built up over 75 seasons—with its own culture and traditions that continue to develop every day. We found success because we were able to authentically connect with multiple generations of NBA fans, and we ultimately created a blueprint for the league to touch fans across so many generations simultaneously.

Ann Wool: One of the things we said early on was that it needed to give the historical perspective but not feel old and dusty. It had to feel fresh and future-forward because that's the audience of the next generation. It had to be broad enough to take us through the entire season. We knew when the tentpoles were, but we didn't know how exactly the story was going to emerge with each chapter. And with any great campaign, it suddenly starts creating chapters you never imagined. Kate's team got a taste of some of the storylines and they just felt like there was so much more where that came from. Our creative team did such a great job of mining and finding the Easter eggs, the little hidden things that a true fan would see.

Jason Campbell: Along with the films we made, all the digital, social, behind-the-scenes stuff was also really amazing to watch. I remember on the first shoot, there was a moment when Magic [Johnson] shouted out Trae Young. Magic was leaving set. Trae Young was about to shoot his thing, and Magic shouted out, "Keep it up in the playoffs!" And watching Trae Young shrink down to being a kid, that became a nice little nugget. 

You have people who understand the NBA intimately, you have creative and content and strategy folks who can layer the depth this thing needed to sustain through the whole season. You could have made this in a very shallow way, and it would've been OK, but the depth that we went with it, the insider knowledge we had on it, helped create the sustainability for it.

In other words, Translation has a bunch of NBA nuts on staff.

Jason Campbell: Mina [Mikhael] is a nut. Steve [Horn] is a nut. We had creative teams plug in. And even if they didn't have knowledge, by the end of it, they had lots of knowledge. That's kind of my pet peeve generally with sports advertising because of how deep it runs, the love for it, whether it's basketball or F1 or whatever it is—if you're not going deep on your insights and your storytelling, you're doing a disservice to how deep the fans are invested. We understood, especially with this audience, you have to give them the head nod and the hat tip.

It would be underwhelming if they knew more about the league than you did.

Jason Campbell: Exactly. 

It reminds me of Game of Zones, with the in-jokes that run throughout the season.

Jason Campbell: We had a challenge at the beginning of the season trying to lock down players, because they're in training camp. But the more players started to see how fun this was, how insider it was, the more they wanted to participate. The amount of players we captured over the season was incredible. Production-wise, logistics-wise, it was a massive feat from our production team.

Ann Wool: Same goes for celebrities. It became so much easier as we went through the phases where people were willing to give us a couple of hours to come and capture them doing something.

Jason Campbell: We had a BTS crew, and then the NBA had their crew. So it was a coordinated push every time. When we showed up at the start of the season, when we showed up around Christmas Day, when we showed up around Playoffs and Finals, it's been a holistic push across all channels from a global standpoint.

Ann Wool: Everyone was so entirely intermeshed because the days were long and there were many, many of them. So the partnership was strong and much needed with the complexity and number of celebrities and players that were rolling in and out. And they would do multiple things. We'd have them on set, then they'd go into a quick stand-up with NBAE [NBA Entertainment, the production arm of the NBA] on a different set. It was a very complicated machine, which, without the trust and the partnership, would never have been possible.

NBA Lane | Family Dinner on NBA Lane | #NBA75

I'm wondering about the value of the big-budget commercial in the sports world today. In a world of highlights and endless digital content, what's the role of the big statement ad at Christmas or for the playoffs? Is it still necessary to get people excited?

Kate Jhaveri: The NBA has built one of the largest social media communities in the world with 2.1 billion likes and followers globally across league, team and players accounts, which is one of our most valuable marketing strategies. We're always developing new ways to leverage social media and digital platforms in an effort to bring our fans closer to the game through unique content that drives engagement and excitement around the league. "Big statement" ads and our efforts on social media are not mutually exclusive. They rely on each other to reach maximum success, and we saw that through the "NBA Lane" campaign, which garnered 106 million video views, the most of any NBA campaign to date.

Jason Campbell: The NBA has such a complex audience. It has a demographic that sits down and watches games, and then it has a rabid online base that just consumes highlights. So the goal was to capture both. I think a big statement piece is always—you'll hear this from most creative people anyway—they love that stuff. I do think it's a really good way to let people know what you're about. But I think the sustained conversation, the momentum around the way we operate, is just as important. To me, it can't be either-or. At some point, it will probably tip one way. But for now, I think you need both, and you need them both to be just as engaging. Like, this one can't be great and that be shit.

It must be fun to work with the athletes—500 guys who can share work through own little media empires. How does that affect the way that you craft work?

Kate Jhaveri: We continue to see that NBA players are among the most followed athletes and entertainers in the world on their social media platforms. NBA players are so much more than athletes. They're husbands, fathers, businessmen, fashion icons, activists, artists and more. For example, LeBron James has over 123 million followers on Instagram and 51 million followers on Twitter.

The NBA Twitter community is as vibrant as it is because of how accessible and visible our players have made themselves. That accessibly and unique perspective has led to the evolution we've seen over the course of the past few years in players launching their own podcasts and media companies, which in turn has only helped grow the league by reaching new fans and audiences. From Golden State Warriors' Draymond Green creating his own podcast in real-time, to Minnesota Timberwolves' Anthony Edwards, Philadelphia 76ers' Matisse Thybulle and Oklahoma City Thunder's Josh Giddey, NBA players continue to give fans a front row seat into their lives. 

Jason Campbell: The tricky part of this is, you could make something with the players and they still don't want to post about it. So you still have to create something they enjoy, so that they become active participants in the amplification of the idea. I would just say it's not as easy as "You make it and they do it." But they loved what we created, so it became an easier thing.

Ann Wool: And you can tell immediately if you struck a chord. If they're going off set, and you have to say, "No, no, no, no. You really cannot post right now. You have to wait." And them being kind of annoyed that they have to wait. Because they just had so much fun or they just had a run-in with somebody. There were so many little moments, and each little vignette was so customized for the player, that they really did want to post.

Jason Campbell: The shoots themselves are obviously high pressure, but they were fun. I'm always a believer that the energy on a set actually comes out in the thing, and you can see it. The Kobe moment in the first spot was reverent. It actually was. I think the players, the celebrities, all felt that concept, and so it became like a superpower to be able to amplify that message out from them.

Ann Wool: We made a new celebrity, too. The Hoopbus is now world famous. It's an organization that drives around and brings basketball to kids around L.A. and Chicago. We were looking at different vehicles, and the Hoopbus just was the most perfect vehicle, and so we made a new celebrity. I think the Hoopbus is now requested to make appearances, and it's risen a few notches.

Can you talk about Michael B. Jordan's his role here? He must be a big NBA fan to have wanted to be a part of this.

Jason Campbell: He is. You could have played that role a couple different ways. I think the way we wanted to play it was with a little bit of a wink, a little bit of a reverence, and with authority. He fit the mold in many of those ways. It was awesome that we got to start it with him and then finish it and close it off. He was an absolute pleasure to work with. You talk about professional. Dude could just nail what he needed to nail, and improvise when you just said, "Hey, do what do you do."

Ann Wool: We loved his interaction with the kids, too. He just brought his own self to the role. As a mom, I was just watching him with the kids in the back of the bus, telling them, "Sit down." They were ad libs that just made it feel real and cute and honest.

Translation is interesting because you have NBA-adjacent accounts beyond the NBA itself—State Farm, Nike, Beats by Dre, the New York Knicks. How does each client inform the others in terms of learning more about the whole ecosystem?

Ann Wool: It's really useful to have all sides. Many years of work with Chris Paul and State Farm, understanding the league and understanding him and his rhythm, his cadence, who he is as a player, how he operates—I think that synergy makes the work we do for State Farm that much better as it relates to basketball. We definitely deal with the NBA with a certain reverence because we feel like we're part of that family as well. And I think we do see things in a much broader sense because we have a number of different clients in different categories that are NBA partners. You're dealing with some of the biggest, most formidable, biggest-spending marketers in the world. You have to be good to stand out, and it's competitive.

Jason Campbell: We actually try to find the overlap. You've seen relationships with leagues where it's kind of surfacey. We try to find, what is the true overlap between what our brand wants to do and what this league is doing, what this game is about? For State Farm, we found the assist as the overlap, and that became the crux of what we built. Because we're really well-versed in this thing and we understand how it works as a game, as a culture, we're able to pinpoint that a little bit sharper, and then find work and find ideas that thread that needle. It's a very small hole to thread—to get it and get it right, which is what we keep trying to do.

Ann Wool: Our recent Beats work with Ja Morant and Lil Baby—you'll see that the flavor and the mood of that is most unquestionably Beats. And finding the ownable space where the overlap is, is what we do. But yeah, there's incredible range in the kind of work that Jason's team is putting out around the NBA.

"Dark Mode" by Lil Baby, starring Ja Morant I Beats by Dre

Any anniversary is an opportunity to use nostalgic assets, like the the old NBA logo at the beginning of the Finals spot. That must have been fun to play around with.

Jason Campbell: Oh, man. To go into archives, that was special. No joke, I was pulling out my basketball card collection, which I still have, and I was comparing with Mina. And I was like, "Look what I found!" But we had to balance things. LeBron [James] and some of the other stars are tapering off, and new people are coming up. Ja [Morant] is coming up. Devin Booker is coming up. [Jayson] Tatum is coming up. So we had to find a balance to position the league for the future. Part of the end-of-season stuff we're doing now exists in the metaverse, which is already an interesting place. It's actually fun to be there!

To me, the league can look back because it's so strong today. There's no worry about getting stuck in the glory days.

Ann Wool: It's important for them to not rest on that because they have a whole new generation of fans to feed. And it was important that it felt 360 enough that it wasn't appealing to just a specific audience in absence of another. We're trying to figure out the next 25 years now—76 through 100 is where we're looking. And these young up-and-coming stars will be the story for the next generation.

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Tim Nudd
Tim Nudd is editor in chief of the Clio Awards, editor of Muse by Clio, and host of the podcast Tagline. He is the former creative editor of Adweek.

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