Giannis Antetokounmpo debuts ‘Naija Odyssey,’ created in partnership with WhatsApp

Giannis Antetokounmpo debuts ‘Naija Odyssey,’ created in partnership with WhatsApp

“In Greece, I was Nigerian. In Nigeria, I was Greek,” says two-time NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo in Naija Odyssey, a short film commissioned by WhatsApp, which debuts today on Amazon Prime. “I was living in the middle between two countries, two identities. Who am I? There were times when even I didn’t know that.”

In February, the Meta-owned messaging service inked a long-term global endorsement deal with Antetokounmpo to collaborate on content, events, and community outreach, with Naija Odyssey as the partnership’s first order of business.

Keen to cut through a saturated sea of branded celebrity partnerships and content, WhatsApp set out to produce a debut on a Hollywood scale. Filmmakers Nono Ayuso and Rodrigo Inada and Academy Award-winning editor Mikkel E.G. Nielsen (Sound of Metal) recount Antetokounmpo’s origin story, creating a 12-minute micro-opus which takes inspiration from Homer’s Odyssey. The content will live on Amazon Prime Video and WhatsApp’s social media and YouTube channels.

Born in Greece to Nigerian parents, Antetokounmpo leverages Naija Odyssey to take us beyond the usual slam dunks and arenas. The result is an intimate reconciliation of his roots, birthplace, and sense of belonging—all while straddling multiple worlds.

“It’s raw to share my personal story like this, but it’s important. It’s easy to fall into the trap of defining yourself the way others see you—to just see myself as ‘the Greek Freak.’ That’s not all of who I am,” Antetokounmpo tells Fast Company, referring to the nickname he earned early on in his career that references the athletic ability that solidified him as one of the NBA’s most dominant players and personalities. “I want people to see me now as I see myself.”

The film short is proof of concept that partnerships between talent and brands can appear seamless and symbiotic. As it turns out, WhatsApp has played a legitimate role in Antetokounmpo’s real-life hero journey—which helps the product placement in the film feel more natural.

“My arrival in the U.S. was a difficult one. I felt alone at times, trying to find a reason to continue here when all I wanted was to be with family. When I felt particularly low, I found myself writing to my family on WhatsApp for support,” says the 27-year-old, whose mother Veronica co-narrates part of the film with him. “Those messages—some are shown in the film—were what inspired me to keep going. Even thousands of miles apart, my family’s encouragement helped me push through.”

It’s that stars-are-just-like-us homespun relatability that drew WhatsApp to working with the athlete and, what the brand, in turn, hopes will resonate with its more than 2 billion users worldwide.

“Our partnership with Giannis started from a place of intention. We felt we had a shared purpose and belief in the power of connection in helping you find your place, your home, your identity, and your own progress,” WhatsApp’s global head of marketing, Vivian Odior, tells Fast Company. “We [often] call ourselves the glue or the host. We’re a platform that’s bringing people together where distance and/or other life trials might otherwise play a part.”

Since entering the NBA draft in 2013, Antetokounmpo has helped skyrocket the popularity of the small-market Milwaukee Bucks franchise, leading the team in 2021 to its first title in 50 years. Foreseeably so, the powerhouse has accumulated several significant sponsorship and endorsement deals, including JBL headphones, Hulu, and a long-term Nike deal that includes his own sneaker line. He is also an investor, alongside Michael Jordan, in the luxury watch marketplace WatchBox, a minority owner of the Milwaukee Brewers, and has an ownership stake in the sports drink startup Ready Nutrition.

Antetokounmpo’s newest venture with WhatsApp sets out to give the star a vital platform to further push the narrative beyond his power baller persona.

“This is not about a basketball partnership. We don’t just want to tell another life story of the climb to basketball superstardom,” says Odior. “We focus on four phases of his life where he had a question about identity, belonging, and connectedness—we set out to shine a light on this narrative and less so to be a megaphone for WhatsApp.”

With Naija Odyssey, Antetokounmpo aims for fans to see themselves reflected in his story.

“I hope they feel inspired to continue their own journey of self-discovery by finding strength in their close connections and their culture the same way I have,” he says.

Brand partnerships and marketing initiatives work well when they land well. In recent years, companies such as Nike, Chevrolet, Hyundai, Montefiore Einstein, and SAS Airlines have made memorable impacts in finding heart and humanity in their respective categories. With the release of Naija Odyssey, WhatsApp is looking to contribute to the conversation by sharply solidifying its own intentional, strong storytelling voice.

Odior, a recent Ad Age 2022 40 Under 40 honoree, teases a potential future rollout of compelling user-based stories that highlight the app’s role in their lives in times of celebration and struggle.

“We feel there’s no better mouthpiece for the power of WhatsApp than our users. We connect with real, raw, authentic spaces in people’s lives,” says Odior, who states the company must not shy away from addressing sensitive issues and politics WhatsApp users face daily. “I don’t think we can afford to be surface because our product isn’t surface. We want to bring meaning to the conversations that we start.”

While Odior quips that the 13-year-old app is still in its “teenage” phase, the company has only begun exploring brand storytelling over the last few years.

“So, it’s a toddler from that perspective,” she says. “The mission from the brand side is to help cement the strength of this product that is so integral in their lives, in a utilitarian way, from being a back-of-mind appreciation to more of a front-of-mind appreciation. How do we get it from head to heart? That’s the overarching job of everything we’re trying to do right now.”

The post Giannis Antetokounmpo debuts ‘Naija Odyssey,’ created in partnership with WhatsApp appeared first on Fast Company.

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