Is an Athlete Endorsement Right For Your Brand?

When Scottish tennis star Andy Murray won Wimbledon earlier this summer, it marked the first time in 77 years that a Brit had clinched the Gentleman’s Singles Championship at the All-England Club. The entire UK seemed to embrace Murray at once. There was even talk that he would be knighted. It was a big deal.

Speaking of big deals, AdAge estimates the Scot’s endorsement potential will balloon to around £50 million a year, or $74 million, following his big win at Wimbledon. The exact figures are debatable, but the industry-wide opinion is that greater corporate investment is heading his way.

It remains to be seen which new brands will throw their support—and advertising dollars—behind Murray, who already endorses Adidas (his clothes and shoes), Head (his racquet), Jaguar, the Royal Bank of Scotland, and Swiss watch brand Rado. But is an athlete endorsement always the best way for advertisers looking to create positive associations with the products they are selling?

While aligning your brand with a successful athlete can be an effective marketing strategy, endorsement deals need to strike the right balance between an athlete’s performance and his or her image. Marketers want their athletes to perform at high levels and to represent ideals that fit with their brand attributes. However, marketing executives have no control over that one injury or one public scandal that changes everything, and that’s what makes athlete endorsements so risky. 

Tiger Woods, Lance Armstrong and Michael Phelps all struck that image-performance balance early in their careers, only to have their transgressions away from the field of play tarnish their images to varying degrees, and cost them considerable endorsement dollars in the process. Following Woods’ infidelity scandal, he was dropped by Tag Heuer and Accenture. Armstrong was dropped by Nike and just about everyone else when his blood doping scandal infiltrated mainstream media. And Phelps’ marijuana scandal resulted in his being dropped by Kellogg, though Kellogg claimed his agreement had expired. 

But contrary to Andre Agassi’s 1990 Canon spot, image isn’t everything when it comes to earning a sponsorship; the performance has to be there, too. Some of us may remember Reebok’s failed “Dan & Dave” campaign in 1992, when the brand put substantial money behind the rivalry of two American Olympic decathlon hopefuls, only to have one of them not make it past the trial stage (the other only won bronze that year). More recently, Nike can’t be thrilled that, after signing Rory McIlroy to a massive off-season deal following five tournament wins and the 2012 PGA Championship, he has struggled to make the cut this season and not contended in any of the major championships.

There are a few best-in-class examples of athletes who have managed to keep their performance and image steady over long periods of time. The New York Yankees’ star, Derek Jeter, whose endorsement portfolio includes Nike, Gatorade, Ford, Visa, and Gillette, has never been caught in a major scandal despite being the highest profile athlete on the country’s biggest stage for almost 20 years, winning five World Series titles along the way. Roger Federer, arguably the greatest men’s tennis player of all-time, has also been a staunch and reliable pitchman, helping to move product for Nike, Rolex, Lindt, Mercedes-Benz, Gillette, and Wilson, among others, while there’s rarely a news story on Fed that isn’t about tennis. 

Those of us in the ad business know that one of the most important challenges we face is to get our brand’s audience to think the brand is “for people like me,” an idea that likely inspired Gatorade’s “Be Like Mike” campaign centered around Michael Jordan in the 1990s. As kids, we were entranced by those commercials. We all wanted to Be Like Mike.

But at some point, we finally grew up. (Spoiler alert: As adults, most of us are decidedly Unlike Mike.) Meanwhile MJ is now 50 years old and long-retired from playing, yet he’s still trying to get us to buy products like Hanes tagless undershirts. And we can’t help but wonder if there isn’t some part of our subconscious with which our childhood idol’s endorsement still resonates (especially when we’re shopping for undershirts).

When it comes to endemic brands like sports drinks, equipment, and apparel, an endorsement from a top-tier athlete can be a powerful marketing statement for those who want to “Be Like Mike” on the court. As for what athletes wear when they’re “off the court,” there’s value in a high profile personality making decisions about brands that they use on their own time and transferring the valuable equity of that athletes’ image onto a certain brand. That’s why it’s so important to find an athlete that embodies the attributes and identities of the brand, so it becomes a believable thing that this person drives this car, or wears this watch. The more authentic the alignment, the more it resonates with the target audience.

Ultimately, if a company finds a high performing athlete like Andy Murray who personifies the attributes of their brand, athlete endorsements can generate significant consumer attention. However, if performance slips, or scandal derails an athlete’s image, brands could soon find themselves desperately trying to pivot and unhitch their wagons.

Next story loading loading..