- The Washington Times - Monday, May 22, 2000

Digex Inc. is planning to score with Los Angeles Lakers' Shaquille O'Neal.

The Web-hosting company in Beltsville has signed the 7-foot, 1-inch NBA all star as its newest promoter.

"Shaquille O'Neal personifies a lot of areas we wanted to portray with the company," said Laura Heinrich, vice president of marketing at Digex. "He resonates with our target audience and has that quality that people recognize."

Mr. O'Neal isn't necessarily the first person that people would associate with a Web-hosting company, but Digex chose the basketball star because of the parallels between him and the company.

Take Mr. O'Neal's performance in the game, his dominance and power. He represents what Digex is trying to convey as they position themselves as dominant players in the Web-hosting industry.

Digex, which has about 900 employees, provides Web site hosting services for clients ranging from mainstream corporations to Internet-based businesses. The company went public in July and trades on the Nasdaq Stock Market. Athlete endorsements have expanded well beyond running shoes and cereal and have resulted in endorsements for much more sophisticated products.

For example, financial investment firm Charles Schwab & Co. Inc. uses athletes like skier and Olympic gold medalist Picabo Street and tennis champ Anna Kournikova in ads about investing.

But industry experts say using a celebrity endorser can be risky.

Companies need to be careful that the "brand [they're] building is not the celebrity's brand as opposed to the company's brand," said Mike Hughes, president and creative director at the Martin Agency in Richmond.

The top rule for any marketer using a celebrity is to make sure the audience remembers the product and not just the celebrity, said David Blum, vice president of strategic planning at Eisner & Associates Inc. in Baltimore. There also has to be a credible association between the two.

If it is hard for consumers to draw a connection between a product and a celebrity then the company is not effectively marketing to them.

"Consumers are much smarter today and they can see through that," Mr. Blum said.

Details of the two-year contract with Mr. O'Neal were not disclosed but Ms. Heinrich said he is receiving a fee and stock options in the company.

Digex could not have asked for a better time to launch the campaign, which begins this week. The Lakers have made it to the NBA Western conference finals which began Saturday and Mr. O'Neal was recently named NBA's Most Valuable Player.

"He's been generating a lot of buzz and we hope to leverage that," Ms. Heinrich said.

Digex had to move fast in getting the $5 million campaign off the ground. Many of the company's target audience key company decision makers and chief information officers are on vacation in July and August so the ads had to start running now. That way the new business generated from the ads would impact Digex's bottom line.

"We had to make sure something would influence our revenues this year," Ms. Heinrich said.

Print ads will begin running in seven publications including the Wall Street Journal, Fortune, Computer World and Information World. Outdoor ads will appear on the West Coast and in New York.

Digex will also make a big push using Mr. O'Neal's image at industry trade shows. Beginning today, at a convention in Orlando three full-size buses wrapped with Mr. O'Neal's image will run continuously from the airport to convention center area hotels.

The heaviest part of the campaign will run in June.

By September, when the momentum of the Olympics will be in full force and company executives are back at work, Digex will begin running more ads featuring Mr. O'Neal. The company estimates at least $5 million more will be spent on media buys.

Digex is trying to reach two separate target markets: the chief executives and decision makers in a company and chief information officers and information technology managers.

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