Corporate America and the Art of Athlete Branding

Corporate America and the Art of Athlete Branding

When corporations set out to hire an employee, whether an athlete for an endorsement campaign or a seasoned executive to lead the sales effort, the hiring decision routinely comes down to personal brand name enjoyed by the job candidate. Company decision makers don't just look at a list and say, "Who's the cheapest available?" or "Who is my favorite?"

Corporations seek to increase profits or enhance shareholder value when integrating athlete endorsements into their marketing mix. Using athletes as spokespeople—marketing channels, really— can be an integral part of any or all of a company's sports marketing activities.

These same companies hire executives, another variation of spokesperson, to reinforce their corporate brand names. Management, like athlete-spokespeople, is hired to play diverse roles with the primary purpose of increasing profits and shareholder value.

Corporations are essentially a collection of personal brands and, as such, employers must evaluate how a particular candidate will impact the organization's chemistry and, by extension, its brand. In sports, coaches routinely weigh the pros and cons of signing great athletes that might lack a "team" orientation or otherwise exude selfishness.

In much the same manner in which corporations rely on great salespeople to market their products, they also utilize star athletes as vehicles to promote, advertise, or otherwise communicate the attributes of each organization's products or services. Retaining the right athlete—just like hiring the right salesman—can be an excellent means to increase an organization's visibility, sales, and, ultimately, profitability.

Although there might be as many reasons why corporations use athletes to market their products and services as there are athletes themselves, athletes—or even traditional salespeople for that matter—with strong personal brand names are primarily retained to help do the following:

  • Establish the organization's brand

  • Increase awareness about the organization's products or services

  • Authenticate a particular product or service line with consumers

  • Enhance credibility with retailers

  • Assist in product development

  • Create a positive association between customers of all types (i.e., retail, wholesale, etc.) and the corporation

It is generally accepted that consumers are more likely to purchase goods and services endorsed by famous individuals, including star athletes, than those without accompanying endorsements.

Essentially, establishing the product as a winner by associating it with a winner—an admired athlete in this case—creates a compelling connection between consumers and the products they purchase.

If this were not the case, multimillion-dollar endorsement contracts would not exist. Additionally, it is believed that the use of high-profile endorsers helps maintain viewers' attention, increasing the impact of marketing campaigns.

Athlete spokespeople are uniquely qualified to provide insight about products or services, especially when promoting those that contributed to their achievements. Essentially, the more familiar an endorser, the more likely consumers are to buy the endorsed product.

Consider the owner of a single hardware store in suburban Houston that sells basically the same items as the large home improvement chains. Having a more conveniently located store, when combined with competitive prices and better customer service, might help the single store differentiate itself. However, having a Houston Astros player say, in a free-standing insert in the local paper, that he always shops there is yet another way to differentiate the small business while allowing customers to associate that ballplayer with the company.

Most small businesses cannot afford star players, such as the Astros' Jeff Bagwell, but they might be able to afford other local, second-tier players such as Lance Berkman or Billy Wagner, both of whom are readily identifiable in the community.

Not only can retaining an athlete to endorse a product be cost prohibitive; it can also bring with it the significant risk of bad publicity—especially for smaller or regional businesses. The same can be said about a company that makes an inappropriate or dreadful hiring decision that backfires and forces the company to retrench.

For instance, former Dallas Cowboys All-Pro wide receiver Michael Irvin was arrested with drugs and prostitutes. For Nike, with whom Irvin had a modest marketing relationship, the damage was minimal. However, for the 13 small Toyota dealerships that had retained Irvin's services for $500,000 and integrated him into a series of commercials, the damage was considerable. Not only did the dealerships suffer the direct losses associated with retaining Irvin, but they also incurred additional costs when replacing the campaign.

Numerous criteria are taken into account when a corporation is contemplating retaining an athlete to serve as its spokesperson—or when an organization is hiring its next vice president of sales. Regardless of which (and in what order) criteria are evaluated, the preferred outcome of using an athlete as an endorser remains the same: Integrate his or her personality into the corporation's image, accentuate the association, and build a competitive advantage over the competition.

Four criteria are typically considered when analyzing the marketing merits of an athlete—or any executive for that matter. Once issues relating to cost and appropriateness of fit are satisfactorily addressed, attention is turned to an athlete or executive's: [1]

[1] Dyson, Amy, and Turco, Douglas, "The State of Celebrity Endorsement in Sport." The Cyber Journal of Sports Marketing, Volume 2, Number 1, January 1998.

  • Familiarity

  • Relevance

  • Esteem

  • Differentiation

Each of these attributes also plays a role when an organization seeks to hire the right candidate for a specific job. The professional attributes, or personal brand characteristics, of job candidates are similarly measured, with the individual proving the best overall "fit" usually getting the job.

At the core, targeted customers must recognize the athlete and find him or her friendly, likable, and trustworthy. Further, a compelling connection between the athlete and the product and the athlete and the audience must be established. For the endorsement to be effective, the athlete must be held in high regard, respected, and deemed credible by potential customers. Finally, successful sports marketing campaigns that incorporate athletes must do so by retaining athletes that stand out among the public, whether this is attributable to charisma, athletic achievement, or an ability to convey a message.

These same premises also hold true in "regular" business settings. That is, employers prefer job seekers who provide the right mix of personality, integrity, and product knowledge. More important, potential customers must recognize these traits if a company's salesperson is to prosper.

However, two additional points warrant mention. First, familiarity can breed contempt. An inverse relationship usually exists between the number of products or services endorsed and the credibility of the pitchman. As the number of products promoted increases, positive consumer perceptions about the athlete's trustworthiness may decline. This explains why most well-managed superstars prefer quality over quantity in their corporate relationships.

The second point that needs to be made about the endorsement market is that there are exceptions and awkward applications to the aforementioned rules. In short, a "personality" like Dennis Rodman is the exception that proves the rule. Or is he? Maybe he was intentionally positioned to maximize his marketing opportunities by locating himself at the Jerry Springer end of the spectrum.

Lance Armstrong, Cal Ripken, Andre Agassi, and Michael Jordan all possess the coveted marketing traits just highlighted. Each has made a unique connection to sports fans and consumers alike. Each knows personal branding as well as anyone and each provides great perspective on how to build a personal brand that transcends their respective roles in professional athletics.