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How to Choose the Right Athlete to Endorse Your Brand

A savvy athlete can today command huge endorsement and sponsorship deals.

A recent article on the BBC spoke of the endorsement riches awaiting British tennis star Andy Murray, despite his recent loss in the Australian Grand Slam final – his third unsuccessful attempt to win a major. In the Sports Illustrated feature on the 50 highest earning American athletes of 2010, it was revealed that golfer Phil Mickelson pocketed $52million in endorsements. Tiger Woods earned more, but I’ll come to him later.

Sports athletes and celebrities draw huge attention from corporate sponsors and media as they appeal to many demographics. An athlete endorsing a product can transform a brand (of course, it can also backfire and create an undesired outcome).

Initially the endorsement creates exposure for the brand. From that starting point, it can then achieve an array of positive brand impact factors – from association to recognition, consideration, favorability, loyalty and ultimately to increased sales of a product. It is thought that consumers purchase athlete endorsed products based on a bundle of perceived benefits and these can include knowledge of the sport, entertainment, nostalgia, affiliation and other benefits personal to the buyer.

So, if that is the logic of endorsements, who would you choose to endorse your product? What attributes do brands look for in an athlete?

In a successful product endorsement, the athlete does so much more than sell the product. The athlete actually becomes a ‘human brand’ in his or her own right. The key attributes can be broken down into two groupings – those you see on the field and those off of it – and these two groupings have to be wrapped in consistency and authenticity. Derek Jeter’s endorsement of Gillette Fusion, for instance, must appear genuine and authentic. If not, then Jeter won’t persuade you to buy the razors. The perceived benefits will not be there.

On-field attributes

  1. Performance quality
  2. Winning record
  3. Skill
  4. Style
  5. Potential

These attributes speak for themselves. Brands want their endorsers to be successful, to be skillful and to play the game in style.  This explains why champion basketball player Michael Jordan’s association with Nike was so successful. Linking with the very best in the game proved to be a successful strategy for Nike. Jordan became arguably the most recognized athlete on the planet and Nike became the stand alone leader in sports shoe sales.

You also need to look at potential. Tennis champion Maria Sharapova signed endorsements with Nike and Prince rackets at the ages of 11 and 14, respectively. At the age of just 17 she won her first major and later became world number one. She quickly gave positive returns to those brands that supported her at a young age.

For me, another case of a brand spotting massive potential while understanding the importance of performance quality, style and skill is the recent contract signed between Adidas and New Zealand rugby player Sonny Bill Williams. Williams is a relatively new convert to the game of rugby union. He has only been in union two years after defecting from rugby league amid much controversy in 2008. Since then, he has only played 4 times for the All Blacks – the legendary New Zealand national team. With a huge year looming for the game, in which New Zealand will host the World Cup, the talented Williams is expected to be a sensation. Adidas have realized this and have added him to a group of global athletes including David Beckham and Lionel Messi, from soccer, and Dwight Howard and Derrick Rose, from the NBA.

Off-field attributes

  1. Personality
  2. Physical attractiveness
  3. Uniqueness or unique personal background
  4. Role model
  5. Relationship with fans

Brands should look for athletes who possess most of the off-field attributes above. Even when one of these attributes is clearly not achieved, possessing the on-field attributes and the other off-field ones may just be enough.  Athletes can sometimes appear bullet proof.  For instance, Nike stood by Tiger Woods, no longer a role model, even after his much publicized extra-marital affairs. Despite losing about $22 million in endorsements, from lost deals with AT&T, Gatorade and Accenture, Woods is still the biggest earner in terms of product endorsements in world sport. Woods now earns $70 million in endorsements, according to Sports Illustrated.

David Beckham is a classic case of an athlete having a personality, the looks and a relationship with fans that strongly appeals to brands and products. Beckham, 35, no longer plays in the strongest leagues in soccer. So, you could argue that his on-field attributes are not as high as they once were. However, Beckham still earns $43.7 million a year and much of that income is derived from product endorsements.

A good example of an endorser leveraging physical attractiveness is tennis star Anna Kournikova, who could be regarded as a highly successful sports loser. Despite never winning a WTA singles tournament, the tennis player earned a reported $10 million a year back in 2002 and her sponsors included Lycos, Omega watches, Berlei lingerie, Adidas and Yonex.  In a press article in July 2002, David Schwab, a spokesman from her agency, Octagon, commented:

She’s a great tennis player, has a great look, and has global appeal. Those are the combination of characteristics companies look for when they partner with athletes”.

The first part of his statement is debatable (particularly in hindsight), but you can’t argue with the remainder.

Talking of tennis brings me back to Andy Murray. The British tennis star will create something unique should he one day win a major. He’ll become the first male British Grand Slam tennis winner in living memory (the first since Fred Perry back in 1936) and – what is more – he’ll be a winner in a truly global sport. Already scoring well on the other attributes above, Murray will finally tick the boxes of ‘winning record’ and ‘performance quality’ and will become hot property. His agent – Simon Fuller, who created the Idol music franchise, and who has also represented Beckham – will then have a genuine opportunity to turn Murray into a global ‘human brand’.

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7 Responses to How to Choose the Right Athlete to Endorse Your Brand

  1. Sheri Smith February 10, 2014 at 5:04 pm #

    Excellent articles. I was able to learn a lot from them and will utilize this info in future negotiations with sponsors.

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