Phillip Stutts

Have you been following the crazy scandalous Hong Kong protest story involving the NBA, the animated TV show South Park, the GM for the Houston Rockets, and LeBron James?

If you’ve been under a rock for the past month, google it — this post is about marketing — so I won’t bore you with a long summation of the international fallout of communist China’s crackdown on the pro-democracy protesters — but to sum it up in one sentence succinctly:

Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protesters are fighting mainland China’s desire to end judicial autonomy and allow extradition (from Hong Kong to mainland China) of certain citizens, like dissidents.

Here is what I am going to show you today — how this sordid tale played out with some very well-known American brands — and what your business can learn from it.


I think it’s important not to be too partisan here but focus on the “brands,” so we’ll dive into the marketing side of this story. I’m going to dole out some grades based on who won, who lost, and what you can learn from this as a marketer and business owner. Here are the key players …

Daryl Morey

The current GM for the Houston Rockets tweeted support for the Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters while his team was playing an exhibition game in Tokyo. His controversial (now-deleted) tweet? “Fight for Freedom, Stand with Hong Kong.”

So, what happened? Apparently promoting democracy was a bridge too far for his bosses and colleagues in the NBA. He was told to delete his tweet (he did), to apologize (he did), and the NBA even considered China’s request to have him fired. Seriously. Morey was also criticized by LeBron James, and even a player on the team he manages (James Harden) for his tweet. BUT — Morey’s brand has risen to astronomical levels outside the NBA because of a seven-word tweet that defended democracy.

His brand positively grew outside his industry but dipped inside the NBA.

LeBron James, Coach Steve Kerr, and the NBA

“King” James (whom I positively highlighted in a recent post), Golden State Warriors Coach Steve Kerr, and the leaders of the NBA. These guys are all the faces of America’s recent “woke movement,” decrying any perceived injustices in American society. They constantly preach that they will always speak “their” truth to power — just as long as no other voice is allowed to be heard (*some sarcasm here).

What did this self-identified group of woke leaders do in the face of Morey’s recent tweet? LeBron, Kerr, and the NBA took a few tracks — LeBron and the NBA criticized Morey and defended China — while Kerr pleaded ignorance to the current geo-political situation — even though he grew up overseas and is well-versed in international affairs (his family’s tragic story is well-documented) and this narrative has been on the forefront of every news outlet since June.

The head-scratching question for all three of these characters is why in the world would they criticize a pro-democracy message? The answer is simple and defines where most (if not all) of our hypocritical positions come from … MONEY! LeBron is not only an NBA superstar, he’s a movie mogul now, and his brand needs the Chinese government’s support to make money. Yes, he’s worth hundreds of millions of dollars — but he wants more (which is his prerogative).

Here’s the problem — LeBron won’t admit his opinion is driven by economic factors. Everyone following this story can clearly read between the lines. LeBron hopes you won’t see the real truth even though it’s transparent to you and me. Simply put, “King” James chose to defend his wallet over defending his country’s values. I can’t state this enough, but “inauthenticity” is the worst way for your brand to be seen.

As far as Steve Kerr and the NBA? Just like LeBron, it’s “all about the Benjamins.” Both were caught off guard by Morey’s tweet, they panicked and when you panic, you see someone’s true colors. The perception (and the truth frankly) is that they chose money over standing up for American values.


South Park and Shaquille O’Neal

The creators of the animated TV show South Park Trey Parker and Matt Stone — took a BIG and LOUD stand against LeBron and China — mocking them in multiple recent episodes of the show.

Quick question, does a TV show like South Park, that is contractually obligated to Comedy Central (and streamed on Hulu) have bosses that need Chinese money? Absolutely. Could Parker and Stone’s comedic take on the current protests cause a financial shit-storm? 100%. YET, they didn’t shirk, or defend China — they shot an arrow in the bullseye of LeBron and the NBA’s wokeness. Parker and Stone remained authentic to their brand, damn the torpedoes! The result of remaining authentic to their brand? It was announced a few days ago that South Park is about to sign their streaming rights for $500 million … that is not a typo.

What about Shaquille O’Neal?

Well, I’m convinced Shaq is the most authentic brand in the sports world today. He’s lovable, fun, and his opinions don’t cow-tow to the mob. He’s a capitalist with authenticity and in today’s world, he’s just refreshing as hell. His quote about the whole controversy was brilliant too:

“Daryl Morey was right. Whenever you see something going wrong anywhere in the world, you should have the right to say ‘that’s not right’. We’re allowed to say what we want to say and we’re allowed to speak up about injustices and that’s just how it goes. And, if people don’t understand that, that’s something that they have to deal with. We as American people do a lot of business in China. And, they know and understand our values. And, we understand their values. And, one of our best values here in America is free speech.”


What can you learn from this story to improve the ROI of your marketing (and business)?

1. This entire incident is a case study in authenticity. When you put profits ahead of staying true to yourself and your brand, you may win the short-game, but you will always lose the long-game.

2. Here’s a little secret on brand authenticity… No matter what you are hoping people don’t see about you or your business, they actually do see it. Stand for something, serve others, admit when you are wrong, and hold to your principles. The money will come.


P.S. — When I talk with business guru James Altucher, I know I’m in for a fascinating conversation about life and politics. Most recently I shared the one formula that connects politics and marketing. This formula is the key to growing your business. Get the insights here.

P.P.S. —  If you know of a friend or a colleague that would enjoy my bi-weekly updates about incredibly cool, funny and idiotic marketing ideas, please have them email me ( or sign up below:

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