When you look at the above advertisement, you will find two elements: the athlete and the brand. While individually, they each represent something different, together they unite to form one singular message. Although the message is now singular, the question though is which message connects with people the most. Is it the athlete or is it the brand?
Some may answer that the advertisement doesn’t favor one side more than the other, but athletes for the most part have been the centerpiece of sports marketing campaigns and continue to be the centerpiece for global sports brands.
Nike Versus Everyone Else
When you think of athletic shoes, one of the first brands that’s always thought of is Nike. Although Nike makes great shoes, there are plenty of shoes out there that are just as good, if not better. So what is it about Nike that makes us jump when we think of athletic shoes? Branding. Simply put, Nike knew that not matter how great of a shoe they could make, it wouldn’t matter unless they could get people to believe in the Nike brand and the culture it represented. If you ask the average person about what brands like Reebok, New Balance, Adidas, or Puma represent, you’d probably get many different answers. Ask someone about Nike though and they’d probably have a good understanding of what the Nike brand represents.
When Nike first signed Romanian tennis player, Ilie Năstase and distance runner, Steve Prefontaine in the early 70′s, Nike set the precedent of using athletes as evangelists for their brand. Although many brands today have an athlete as their brands focal point, Nike transcends those brands in that they don’t focus on just one individual, but have built a family of athletes that embody the Nike brand. From Kobe Bryant to Derek Jeter, Nike has profited off a network of athletes that as a group make up the Nike brand.
Although we may not realize it, we don’t choose brands just because we like the quality of their products, but rather because we like what they represent. For example, when someone puts on a pair of Jordan’s, not only are they buying a pair of basketball shoes, but they are buying the experience that comes with it. A majority of us may never hit the game winning shot in a basketball game, but owning a pair of Jordan’s allows ‘fans’ to be part of the moments that defined Michael Jordan. Similarly, the same can be applied to when someone buys a pair of Kobe Bryant shoes or a Lance Armstrong “Live Strong” shirt. We like our products, but we love our athletes. No one knows that better than sports brands.
The Marketing Value of an Athlete
While it may be bold to say that an athlete can transcend a brand entirely, with each new ‘investment’ by brands into an athlete, the notion that athletes are replaceable is slowly fading. Brands like Adidas, Nike and Reebok for example have been in a frenzy trying to lure NBA stars to sign contracts, much of which resembles a bidding war. Back in 2009, Dwayne Wade announced that he would be leaving the Converse brand to join Nike’s Jordan brand. In a conversation with the AP, Wade made it clear why he was leaving them:
“I didn’t want to be in the Converse brand anymore because it seemed like they didn’t know what to do with me. I want to go global. It’s something I feel like I have to do. I want to continue to build my brand.”
Although Converse had plans to make Dwayne Wade the focal point of their athletic shoe line, they were unable to fully utilize his marketing potential. Wade realized this and jumped ship. An important point to understand about the relationship between the athlete and the brand is that an athlete can only take you so far before they need help, which in most cases means the ability to expand their reach globally through strategy and brand influence. Converse gave Wade a shoe and hoped that it would catch on domestically. The problem here is that Dwayne Wade is one of the most recognizable basketball players in the world. While other NBA players are being marketed both domestically and internationally, Wade’s reach had a ceiling. Although the dollars and cents matter when it comes to an athlete representing a brand, a brands ability to propel an athlete and increase their relevance and influence plays a big part in the decision as well.
Earlier this year, McDonald’s came to a multiyear agreement with NBA star Winning Solves [Almost] Everything" href="http://www.josephayi.com/blog/winning-solves-almost-everything/" target="_blank">LeBron James and also renewed a multiyear contract with Dwight Howard. Investing millions of dollars, brands and organizations like McDonald’s understand the impact value that athletes can have. Before the Tiger Woods debacle, Tiger was one of the top earning athletes when it came to endorsement deals. In fact, Forbes announced that in 2009, Tiger had become the first athlete ever to earn over 1 billion dollars over his career before taxes, with a large percentage coming from endorsement deals. Regardless of what has transpired over the last 6 months with Tiger Woods, the fact remains that athletes are one of the highest paid marketing ‘tools’ for brands because of their ability to compel ‘fans’ to become part of what they are representing.