Are Brand Ambassadors Really Worth It?
25th October, 2012
This month we’ve witnessed an end to one of the longest running and high-profile brand endorsements of all time –Nike’s sponsorship of Lance Armstrong, the shamed cyclist and denounced Livestrong founder. Inevitably there’s been a flurry of media activity since Nike unceremoniously ditched Armstrong; some quarters questioning Nike’s moral integrity (having stood by Woods, Vick and Bryant in the past); others praising the sportswear giant’s knack of only sticking by those with ‘come-back-ability’; and one journalist even going as far to put the drop in Nike’s share price down to the whole debacle.
My questions is – given the recent controversy surrounding brand ambassadors like Armstrong and John Terry – are these egotistical mega-stars really worth the investment from a sponsor’s perspective?
The answer, in my opinion, lies with the sponsor’s brand values. As long as the respective sportsman or sportswoman is representing the brand and its values correctly, then there can be little complaint. For ease, let’s take Nike, whose principal reason for spending almost $800 million dollars per annum on individual endorsements is to associate the Nike Swoosh with the sporting elite; whose success has been achieved through years of hard work, dedication and natural talent. Essentially, as long as its ambassadors are excelling in their chosen discipline, be that on the pitch, on the golf-course or on the track, they are promoting the Nike brand how they are supposed to. Tiger Woods cheated on his wife; Michael Vick held pitbull-fights at his home (!?) and Kobe Bryant has a long list of offences that most would agree are far worse than doping, yet none of these wrongdoings directly impacted on their ability to drive a golf ball 350 yards, run a 50 yard touchdown or score 80+ points per game respectively. For all of their wrongdoings they still represented Nike’s brand values.
In contrast, Armstrong’s doping completely shattered the illusion that he was this super-human machine whose achievements were entirely down to his dedication and intense training. As Laura Ries, an Atlanta-based marketing consultant says, “Nike is about ‘just doing it’ and that doesn’t mean drugs. It means hard work and ethics. And this flew in the face of it.” Furthermore, his doping charge removed any thought that the clothing and equipment supplied by Nike had any impact on Armstrong’s competitive edge – we have been left with no false impressions as to what gave Lance his competitive advantage.
Whilst Nike will continue to represent the cream of the sporting elite (Rory McIlroy has reportedly been offered a ten-year £15 million per annum deal to replace Armstrong), it’s likely that certain brands will follow Red Bull in focussing on less famous athletes and increasing spend on activation. The energy drink has been hugely successful over the years in getting great market exposure and engagement through lesser known sportsmen and women – whether that be through taking BMXing to the next level, hosting the world cliff-diving championships or throwing the previously unheard of Felix Baumgartner towards earth from space. Obviously these types of endorsements tend to suit the more extreme brands, but perhaps the Armstrong incident will encourage sponsors to see if their money might be better spent on endorsing the Felix Baumgartner’s of the sporting world, acting as the bridge for success from grass roots level to the pinnacle of their ambassadors’ careers.