A delicate balance

The road ahead for Power Balance is precarious. Even if the company can emerge from litigation intact, it faces an uphill public relations battle. When Paul Swangard, an authority on sports marketing at the University of Oregon, looked at the Power Balance website in its current form, he couldn't help but think of a missed opportunity.

"If Shaquille O'Neal said, 'When I wear this, I feel more confident—I can't explain it but it works for me'—if you'd taken that approach to begin with, people probably would have still bought it," Swangard says. "But because they've found themselves in the midst of all this controversy, they may not be able to reposition themselves in that way."

As Power Balance begins to reposition itself, at least tacitly, in precisely that way, its most urgent job is to hang on to its corps of athlete clients. The notion that something works if one believes in it is as deeply ingrained in locker rooms as in the aisles of the self-help section, but a little bad PR can infect prevailing opinion. "The sustainability of the brand is whether they can deliver on the brand promise," Swangard says. "Phil's always said Nike is a testament to great branding but if the product sucked, the brand would basically collapse upon itself. As we look at Power Balance today, that is the Achilles' heel here. There is a growing skepticism of whether there's really anything to this product. And if that begins to weave itself among some of the people who've been using the product, it does run the risk of not being relevant."

Josh seems acutely aware of this. When I asked him if he thought the company could survive as just a fashion statement, he told me, "If Kobe really believed it didn't work, the fad would die out." But Josh was merely indulging my hypothetical. He, and many others, will tell you there is no question that the product works.

People can agree to disagree. It is possible that the denouement of this winter's conflicts will be a peaceful schism between believers and the skeptics—leaving enough market share for Power Balance to persist, as so many other products do without the imprimatur of Western science.

In 2006, Josh and I spoke a lot about his Christianity (another brother, Todd, is a pastor), but when I proposed an analogy between his faith in God and faith in Power Balance, Josh demurred. He sees Power Balance linked to his faith only insofar as everything in his life is. "My faith has helped me become the person I am today, and that, in turn, has helped me get through all the challenges that I've been presented with in my life, whether it's when my Mom died or whether it's business challenges," he said. "But I've definitely encountered more skepticism around Power Balance than in my faith in God."

Even with the future uncertain, the Rodarmels have big plans for Power Balance. "We're not under the impression that we can just make one product and make it forever," Josh told me. When I asked if Power Balance was ready to move in on the apparel giants with its own clothing line, though, he said, "We're not there yet."

Equally important to Josh are the company's philanthropic initiatives. Already supporting the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund in honor of their late mother, JoAnne, the Rodarmels plan to launch a foundation that would build playing surfaces in blighted areas. "I'm a firm believer in 'To whom much is given, much is expected,'" Josh says. "I've been very blessed in terms of what's happened with Power Balance, and I want to give back in a way that other people can be blessed from Power Balance."

Josh reads his clippings. He's heard the cries of snake oil. The job is harder than he'd imagined, and the constant travel wears on him. But none of it can spoil his sunny disposition. When he thinks about Power Balance, all he sees is positive. "It's been the best learning experience of my life," he says. 

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