Mind Candy

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How sports celebrity endorsements affect a company’s branding

Posted by mandyf on December 4, 2012

The effect of sports celebrity endorsements on a company’s branding can not be underestimated. Usually the effect is positive however at times it can backfire and cause an undesired outcome. Throughout the past hundred and twenty five years or so we have seen sports and business intertwined in the advertising world and the relationship grows stronger every year elevating both brand and athlete to levels of public consciousness neither would likely realize on their own.

One of the earliest examples was the old tobacco cards picturing baseball players that came with a pack of cigarettes. Initially this small scale idea reached out to other businesses and eventually became so big it became an industry of it’s own. What we are most familiar with and really going to look at however is more traditional advertising rather than a gimmick that was aimed at simply separating on cigarette pack from another.

Babe Ruth became a pitchman for seemingly everything. His immense popularity with young and old people around the world made him the ideal marketing icon. Attaching his name or face to anything instantly made an item more desired as subconsciously the link between Ruth’s greatness transferred to the items greatness whether right or wrong. Whether you wanted to plug cigars, suits, or an auto dealership, the good feeling, winning resume, and sheer greatness Ruth achieved on the field seemed to convey the message that if you did as he did, shopped where he shopped, or ate and smoked what he did that you too could be a winner like him.

As time marched on and more and more companies saw this as a valuable tactic and it spread to begin including not just great baseball players like Ted Williams agreeing with four out of five doctors that Lucky Strikes were the best cigarette on the market but to every major sport including Olympic champions. Over the next three decades the value of celebrity sports endorsements seemed to peak as nearly every professional athlete had an endorsement of some sort, even what we would term as minor sports celebrities struck deals in and around their hometowns to vouch for how a local business was the best.

By the late sixties to early seventies when television became a given in almost every American home celebrity sports endorsements reached a previously unheard of level. A far greater potential to tap audiences led to the competition for not just bigger names but the exclusivity of those names in regards to pitching only their product so that competitors couldn’t reap the benefit of their celebrity. “Broadway” Joe Namath with his swagger and Super Bowl win fresh in the minds of the country became an advertising cash cow. It is said women wanted to be with Joe and men wanted to be him. As such he could pitch anything. It was he after all that said “I like my Johnnie Walker Red and my women blonde.” He even sold pantyhose and got paid $10,000 to shave off his mustache to tout the way Noxzema treated his skin so well.

We didn’t see anyone top Broadway Joe until Michael Jordan came along and changed all the rules. When Nike and Jordan hitched their stars to each other a level of celebrity/company branding previously unheard of took place. They bet on each other. As such Michael Jordan was the most marketable and perhaps recognized active professional athlete on the planet. Nike went from being in competition with Addidas, Converse, and Pony, to being the stand alone leader in sports shoes. If “Air” Jordan wore them then they had to be the best and the high price was instantly worth it. I recall spending maybe thirty dollars for the “in” basketball shoe prior to the arrival of Air Jordans which ran around sixty dollars. Price didn’t matter nor did having to actually go on a waiting list to get my size, I had to have them and so did millions of others.

The unparalleled success of the shoe line led to tee-shirts, posters, wristbands, all adorned with Jordan, all big sellers. Even after he left the game his relationship with Nike continued as the name of a true champion never goes out of style or the public mind which is a marketers dream. Nike changed the way celebrity athlete endorsements would be handled forever and proved beyond any doubt that seeing linked with the best sells the best.

Of course celebrity athlete endorsements haven’t always worked out so well, take the recent Michael Vick situation for instance. Vicks actions and ensuing legal problems led to him losing all endorsements he once carried. Nobody wanted to have his new image associated to their product and sales of anything associated to him immediately hit the skids in the wake of his controversy. Adam “Pacman” Jones seemed a talent destined for large scale marketing but he too damaged his image to the point the few companies that gambled on him wrote it off as a loss and ran for the door.

The massive of appeal of the right athlete endorsing the right product is undeniable. It can take a company or product to the next level or stave off it’s demise with a thumbs up and a smile. Everyone is on the lookout for the next big thing, the next Michael Jordan, the next perfect marriage of the celebrity athlete and product. After all we the consuming public admit it or not do respond to what our heroes tell us and if Derek Jeter tells me Ford is what I should be driving, I better get down to the dealership.


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