Endorsement deals remain primarily open to a select few superstars, offered only by a handful of large advertisers. The reason for this is simple. The endorsement business has long been predicated on large national television campaigns and the complex, six-figure deals that come with them. However, as advertisers focus on new ways to break through online ad clutter, this tried-and-true offline marketing strategy is being reinvented for the Web.
Consider this real-world example during the Detroit Red Wings' run at the 2009 NHL Stanley Cup. A sore subject for Red Wings fans, assuredly, but there is little doubt that the excitement elevated the team and its players to the height of their popularity. A leading American automaker took advantage of this unique situation and quickly implemented a Detroit-targeted online campaign featuring the team's captain and top NHL defenseman, Nicklas Lidstrom. Up and running in just five days, the campaign was able to achieve critical efficiency for the company, unthinkable in the traditional endorsement world.
The Lidstrom campaign demonstrates how advertisers -- large and small, regional and global -- are changing the rules of the endorsement game. They're now able to access a once-exclusive marketing strategy and combine it with the speed, accountability and targeting capabilities of online advertising. Moving online -- and "going local" -- has the potential to level the endorsement playing field without sacrificing the power of brand associations.
Many consumers have greater affinity for and a deeper bond with home-team stars than the current go-to endorsement talent. Still, stars like Tiger Woods, LeBron James, Peyton Manning and Derek Jeter top Sports Illustrated and Fortune lists of the highest-paid celebrity endorsers, year after year. This is unsurprising; when the model is based on large-scale national advertising, companies require figures with the broadest appeal.
If the goal is to connect with consumers online, however, the opportunities to leverage local affiliation increase. In the New York market, Giants running back Brandon Jacobs evokes stronger consumer affinity than Peyton Manning. Similar dynamics are at play in nearly every market, where high-performing hometown players elicit stronger consumer response than do nationally recognized stars.
Moving past the elite superstars and employing local favorites instead actually results in campaigns that are more relevant to the target audience and more cost-effective for advertisers. The roster of athletes available for these types of campaigns is incredibly deep, but because the traditional television-driven endorsement model has ruled for so long, these players have been routinely overlooked and grossly underutilized. But this is changing, and rapidly.
Two major shifts are likely as athlete endorsements gain traction online. First, big brands, that in the past would have done anything to sign Tiger Woods exclusively, instead will assemble "dream teams" of professional athletes who deliver stronger brand associations in local markets than the likes of LeBron James and Derek Jeter.
Second, smaller advertisers, who have never considered celebrity endorsements because of the high price and complexity of the traditional arrangements, will recognize the opportunity and realize the value and cost-efficiency of the new online model.
The idea of connecting with sports fans as a distinct demographic may be new to these advertisers, but it is hard to think of a more passionate, emotionally invested group of consumers to target. Brands are always looking for ways to create "die hard" fans. Tapping athletes who already have them is a good place to start.