When the world's largest athletic-gear company kicked off two days of media presentations this week to preview new, innovative gear that would hit shelves through 2016, Nike didn't opt to start the event with remarks from LeBron James or any of the other professional athletes signed to the company.
Instead, Nike (nke) brought out the 5'4" actor-comedian Kevin Hart to hype up the crowd.
"Nike truly believes if you have a body, you are an athlete," said Hart, known for his leading roles in "Think Like a Man" and "Get Hard." He added, "Being an athlete is a mindset. We can all adapt that mindset."
The Nike-Hart relationship is one of many ties that athletic-gear makers have made recently with celebrities that aren't professional athletes. This trend – which has occurred since at least the 1980s when musical group Run D.M.C. first had ties to Adidas – seems to have accelerated recently as the reach of celebrities via social media presents another compelling marketing opportunity.
Hart has 26.9 million Twitter followers. Under Armour's (ua) most popular athlete – NBA star Stephen Curry – has 4.8 million.
Hart started his own movement: in the span of seven months, the celebrity's "Move With Hart" movement has lured 15,000 people to 15 5K runs across three continents. Hart invites fans in various cities he is visiting to impromptu runs – and they heed his social-media call to go out for a run.
Nike earlier this year said it was partnering with the actor, a pact that even resulted in a signature shoe called "The Hustle Hart."
"Part of our mission statement is, if you have a body, you are an athlete," Nike Chief Executive Mark Parker told Fortune. Hart "is incredibly inspiring."
And because of lot of athletic gear is sold to consumers that don't even use the shoes and apparel for athletic purposes, this entry point may be more compelling to a bigger audience of non-athletes.
"Just like with the athletes, the idea from the brand is to get some fashion credibility from celebrities that will make kids want to buy their shoes," said Matt Powell, sports industry analyst for research firm The NPD Group. Powell stresses that savvy marketing and a high-profile celebrity endorsement isn't enough: the gear needs to be compelling too. And athletes remain critical to the brands: the Michael Jordan business is expected to generate $4.5 billion in annual revenue for Nike by 2020. Curry is worth billions to Under Armour.
Still, a little star power can go a long way. Here are four other examples of celebrities that are working with major athletic brands:
Kanye West – Adidas
This partnership probably gets more press attention than any other – it was so significant it warranted a feature story in Fortune magazine. Adidas, Europe's biggest athletic gear maker, ran into some branding issues in the U.S. market (and even lost some market share in its home market to Nike) when its gear was considered by some to be off trend.
But things have turned around lately, and part of that is due to the hype West has brought to the table. Consider the most recent New York Fashion Week show, which featured a slew of Kardashians and Jenners in the audience, resulting in a lot of press. Adidas has said the partnership with West has generated a ton of attention for the company's brands.
All seven iterations of the Yeezy Boost, for example, have sold out. It also helped Adidas become the most popular sneaker brand on Instagram last year.
"The collaboration with Kanye West has significantly elevated the perception of our brand," Adidas Chief Executive Herbert Hainer told analysts earlier this month.
Kylie Jenner – Puma
Some family drama brewed earlier this year when the media began to speculate that Kylie Jenner, the sister of Kim Kardashian, would soon be featured in a marketing campaign for Adidas rival Puma. West, husband to Kim, was so enraged about the rumors that he tweeted: "1000% there will never be a Kylie Puma anything. That's on my family! 1000% Kylie is on Yeezy team!!!"
That proved to be wrong. Less than two weeks after sending that tweet, press outlets reported Jenner signed a rumored seven-figure deal with Puma. She will appear in the brand's advertising that will kick off this April.
In another high-profile win for Puma – increasingly overshadowed by Nike, Under Armour and Adidas in the U.S. market – it has moved to collaborate with one of the world's biggest pop stars, Rihanna. Their first collection debuted earlier this year during New York Fashion week, a collection Puma said was inspired by Japan's street style and "blurred the lines between genders that are often times too rigid for her fashion tastes."
"This collection is not only a representation of who I am and how I dress, but also pushes the boundaries of what I wanted to create with PUMA" Rihanna said last month. The collection began to hit stores late last month.
More gear is on the way. Furry sandals called "Fur Slides" will launch next month, while the Puma Creeper – another shoe style – will retail starting in May with new colors. Additional footwear and accessories will retail later this year.
Gisele Bundchen – Under Armour
Under Armour has made a lot of strides to shake off the perception that the company's apparel and shoes are just for the boys. Initially known as a maker of base layers, with sales mostly tied to the men's market, Under Armour's newest ads have featured female gymnasts, ballerinas, and one of the world's most recognizable models.
But the ad that featured was notable in that it didn't depict her wearing the gear in a fashionable setting. Instead, Bundchen is scene attacking a punching bag in a warehouse space as real comments are flashed in the background – commentary that both supports and criticizes her pact with Under Armour. Bundchen's ties to Under Armour are part of a family affair of sorts, as her husband New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is also represented by the brand.
The name LeBron James was incorrect in an earlier version of this story. The error has been corrected.