There’s a word that describes the business partnership between a rising NBA star known by his initials, K.A.T., and a candy bar called Kit Kat:
“I feel like it is,” Timberwolves big man Karl-Anthony Towns said. “It’s something too perfect of a match.”
Two seasons into his NBA career, Towns hasn’t yet made the playoffs, but he has a growing list of corporate partners he endorses — double digits and counting with a chocolate-bar ad campaign aimed at an internet audience that launched last week.
He also has deals with Nike, Gatorade, 2K Sports, Beats by Dre and Jack Link’s Beef Jerky. In the Jack Link’s commercials, which have aired throughout the NBA playoffs, he co-stars with none other than Sasquatch himself and demonstrates what has been true for some time: An NBA star needn’t play in New York City or Los Angeles to compile endorsement deals.
And all at the tender age of 21 …
Athletes and their handlers call it building their “brand,” these financial relationships that for the biggest superstars can dwarf their playing salaries.
NBA stars, in particular, have cashed in, thanks to massive worldwide appeal that includes a growing audience in China.
Three of the league’s superstars — Cleveland’s LeBron James as well as Golden State’s Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry — all earned $35 million or more from endorsement deals this season, according to Forbes magazine. Much of that comes from deals with shoe/apparel companies such as Nike, Under Armour and Adidas.
The only other sport that’s comparable with its worldwide audience is soccer.
The Cavaliers paid James nearly $31 million to play for them. Nike, Intel, Kia Motors, Samsung and Coca-Cola, among others, paid him $55 million this season, according to Forbes. James also has an entertainment production company that has four television series on the air, and he owns a stake in a pizza franchise.
The Warriors paid Curry a mere $12.1 million this season because of a contract he signed in 2012, early in a career that until then had been sidetracked by ankle injuries. Curry is expected to earn more than $50 million next season after he signed two big deals with Chinese companies.
Of course, James has won four league MVP awards and three NBA titles while Curry has been named MVP twice and won the championship once.
‘I am Bigfoot’
Perpetual All-Stars such as Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, Carmelo Anthony, Kyrie Irving and Russell Westbrook earned anywhere from $8 million to $15 million off the court this season.
All of which gives Towns somewhere to aim, even if he considers his expanding number of partnerships something else beyond the money.
“I like to be able to express my personality, the way I am,” Towns said. “Everyone is different. I’m more of a social person, so it’s a lot of fun to go out and do what I love to do: Show my personality and my humor.”
That’s why he has made a series of quirky Jack Link’s commercials, a “professional tall athlete” who works out with the product’s recurring Sasquatch character.
When asked if a man who wears a size-20 shoe believes in such a creature, Towns said, “I am Bigfoot.”
That’s also why he recently recorded with a Hershey’s chocolate production crew that numbered nearly a dozen members at his expansive suburban Twin Cities home.
In the candy store
Hey, he’s Big K.A.T., but it’s the Big Kit Kat. This stuff sure gets confusing, doesn’t it?
They filled a camping cooler with Kit Kat bars that Towns broke off a chunk of during filming and stocked a kitchen pantry with many more for another shot. By afternoon’s end, much of the chocolate that didn’t end up on his shorts filled his stomach.
He did take after take after take for more than five hours, shooting segments for three wry commercials aimed at a young “GenZennial” demographic and timed to commemorate the anniversary of the “Big Kat” bar.
“I definitely went through two Costco-sized boxes,” Towns said. “I was like a little kid in the candy store, only the candy store was brought to me. It was awesome. I got the chance to eat all the Kit Kats I can imagine.”
He also displayed a lovely singing voice in a shot where he delivers the familiar “Break Me Off a Piece” jingle.
“I’m going to stick to playing for the Timberwolves,” he said.
Parent company Hershey’s used the Chance the Rapper jingle to reach its young target audience when it launched the Big Kit Kat campaign a year ago. He remixed that 30-year-old jingle for a new audience. When Towns’ representatives proposed a match made for each other, the two sides united at Towns’ home to produce 15- to 30-second commercials aimed at social-media audiences.
Towns is represented by Creative Artists Agency, a Los Angeles-based company whose clients include not only some of Hollywood’s biggest movie and television stars but star athletes as well. Paul, for example, is featured in a series of ads for State Farm insurance.
Towns’ Kit Kat spots launched on Twitter and migrated to Facebook and Instagram as well. Now they are being placed alongside online videos that attract an NBA audience.
The chocolate bar’s long-running “Give Me a Break” theme once was aimed at workers on coffee and cigarette breaks. Now it’s aimed at a young audience that takes its breaks by watching short internet videos.
The candy company’s marketers considered Kit Kat and big K.A.T. a match not just because of their shared name, but also what Kit Kat brand senior manager Dan Tirol calls shared qualities between internet video campaigns and a young, rising NBA star.
“They’re short, quick, lighthearted, fun, real and authentic,” Tirol said. “That’s one reason Karl made so much sense. When you watch him play on TV or if you’ve ever met him, he has a fun, engaging personality that fit the brand. Karl also is the age of our target [audience]. That’s the other thing that made so much sense.”
Hershey’s has used young Philadelphia 76ers star Joel Embiid and the NFL’s Todd Gurley for Jolly Rancher ads and worked with Olympians Michael Phelps, Jordan Burroughs and Carli Lloyd as well.
“Karl, he’s a natural in front of the camera,” Tirol said. “You can tell he’s going to be not just an amazing basketball talent, but an amazing entertainer, too.”
In the spotlight
When he was drafted first overall in 2015, Towns appeared on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” and was stuffed into a phone booth in a sketch with actor Kevin Spacey, Triple Crown-winning jockey Victor Espinoza and two others.
Last summer, he guest starred on a Disney Channel show, and he said he aspires to act someday.
“I have a lot of opportunities I want to try to take advantage of and see where it goes,” Towns said. “It’s a different type of work. Basketball is one type of work and this is another type of work.”
Towns moved into his new home before last season, just in time to surprise young trick-or-treaters who rang his door bell. It was months before he signed on with Hershey’s and Kit Kat.
“I did give out a lot of Kit Kats,” he said. “It feels like my childhood has come full circle. I remember those days walking to the QuickChek in Piscataway [N.J.] to get a Kit Kat and now it just reminds me of how far I’ve come in my life and my career.”