Harden stars as brands seek authenticity

James Harden's biggest asset to advertisers is that he is just playing himself, not acting a part. Soobum Im/USA TODAY Sports

Years ago, all else being equal, advertisers preferred the guys with flash. The guys who could act -- you know, the Shaqs and the LeBrons.

Give them a script for a commercial and watch them go.

And while those guys still draw attention and get plenty of deals, there's more noise than ever before focused on the natural.

As the younger audience seemingly becomes more skeptical by the minute of endorsement deals (and how much guys got paid to say they liked a product), the challenge for those who use athletes in advertising has been this: Craft spots that come off as genuine, the real deal.

When Kevin Durant first came into the league, there was a universal groan from Madison Avenue. What a waste. Guy is an amazing player, but just doesn't have the personality.

But then something happened.

People got to know Durant. They loved his game, but they also loved that he was so real.

He kissed him mom after games and showed up at press conferences with a backpack, and it wasn't because Nike told him to. So Sprint signed him to yell at you about downloading Doodle Jump.

James Harden, Durant's former teammate, fits the same mold. He comes off as down-to-earth despite all the eyeballs watching him and fans adoring him.

Foot Locker has made the biggest bet on Harden, including filming a commercial last year with Russell Westbrook in which Harden shows off his "tear-away" beard.

This year, the company brought back Harden to film a spot in which he trades his friend Maurice from his entourage to Kris Humphries' group. Hilarity ensues.

"I had fun doing these," Harden said. "There were a lot of good outtakes."

The spot takes creative license, of course, but Jed Berger, Foot Locker's vice president of brand marketing, says the company picked Harden for these spots because he's simply playing himself.

"The best stuff we get is when guys are themselves and they're not playing roles," Berger said. "We'll often ask the guys, 'What would you say in this situation?'"

Berger said that Harden also has a "big sneaker game," which helps him be authentic with Foot Locker's core consumer.

"I try to get my hand on whatever is fresh," said the Rockets star, who has a shoe deal with Nike.

Harden said he thinks it's funny when people accuse him of growing the beard to stand out.

"It's nothing like that," he said. "In college, I had some facial hair peach fuzz and thought it was cool, and then it just kept getting longer and longer. And all of a sudden, I became that guy with the beard."

Berger says the beard is a nice added touch on Harden, but it's just a piece in the marketing package that he has to offer.

"This ad campaign is about rolling out the hottest and freshest product week after week," Berger said. "James works for us because he's extremely 'right now' both on and off the court."

Harden insists, "I am who I am," and that's exactly who many companies hope he will continue to be.