Emulating our favorite athletes is as American as apple pie. Pretending to be Ted Williams, Roger Staubach, Chris Evert, Wayne Gretzky, or Mia Hamm has provided an escape for generations of sports fans while providing valuable lessons about the personal branding process.
Growing up as kids it was not unusual to place that Johnny Bench rookie baseball card in the spokes of your bike (such a reckless activity would be viewed as heresy in today's sports trading card market). We not only wanted to be our stars, we wanted to let everyone know that we had a special, unconditional relationship with them.
We knew these athletes on the field and whether we or even they realized it or not, we learned about what qualities they most exemplified off the field through sports marketing and endorsements.
Sports marketing is defined as using any level or type of sport or sport-related activity to promote, advertise, or otherwise communicate the attributes of a corporation's products or services. There is little doubt that, given the intimate relationship fans believe they have with star athletes, their endorsements not only fit neatly into this definition, but they routinely go one step further: Endorsements add a personal touch to the communications process.
It takes a mere moment or two for consumers to form opinions and beliefs about the products and services pitched by athletes. Their observations impact consumers' feelings about the particular athlete and the company he or she is representing. Consequently, a compelling match between the athlete's personal brand and the corporation's brand became increasingly important. This holds true throughout business and industry today, as organizations tend to hire people that reflect their values and project the company's carefully crafted image.
By using the sports endorsement model to show how athletes have used their affiliation with companies to shape their own personal brands, it becomes easier to see how a person can shape his or her own personal brand, or, even more specifically, how a business decision maker can effectively choose the right spokesperson for a company's brand, whether that spokesperson is a star salesman or athlete.
It is constructive to look at the role of athlete endorsements because, unlike most private executives, star athletes enable us to study very public, and often debated, personal brands. When reading this chapter on athlete endorsements, consider the evolution, positioning, and ongoing management of personal brands as they relate to business managers.
When athlete images are presented in ads only one or two of their qualities shine through. The same is true in professional settings where people quickly form an opinion about a manager's core qualities. Consequently, it is important for managers to take the necessary step to communicate their most important attributes. After all, it is widely believed that "you never get a second chance to make that first impression." Managers must reflect on what they are doing day to day to earn and then extend that initial endorsement from colleagues, superiors, and the company.
You might wonder why athlete endorsements are reflective of the personal branding process. Even though athletes who companies choose are pitching a carefully crafted message about a product and not themselves, the most effective athletes, with the help of their agents and sports marketers, choose which companies they align themselves with and such endorsements become an equal reflection on the athlete and the company. It is easy to forget that the most effective endorsement is one that is consistent with an already established personal brand.
The businessman's endorsement world is subtler because he is not pitching someone else's products, not being paid extra for doing so, and not broadcasting it to the world. Yet managers still make equally important choices about the company and the people they keep.
Managers who are aware of personal brand building have the opportunity to present a consistent message about themselves and gradually shape that message over time. They realize that like star athletes some of the personal branding process is developed while on the field (at work) and an equally important amount is developed off the field (at company functions, dinner meetings, etc.).
The first athlete to endorse a bevy of products was "The Galloping Ghost," Red Grange, a three-time All-American halfback at the
University of Illinois, who, after leaving Illinois, brought prominence to the NFL. In 1925, Grange reportedly earned an outrageous $100,000 for a nine-game tour. Thanks to Grange's agent, C. C. "Cash and Carry" Pyle, an Illinois theater owner and promoter, Grange secured product endorsements that included meatloaf, ginger ale, and candy bars. He also made radio and personal appearances and earned roles in three movies, all of which reportedly earned this early marketing duo more than $1 million.
Among the reasons he was a successful endorser was that his reputation and standing was left largely to the imagination of national audiences. His appeal was built in an era when people read day-old accounts of ballgames or heard his voiceovers on the radio a far cry from today's around-the-clock sports and advertising cycles.
Grange was followed a few years later, in 1930, when Babe Ruth made $73,000 in endorsements for Spaulding, Quaker Oats, Pinch Hit Tobacco, and All-American Athletic Underwear. Ruth, widely considered the ultimate indulger, took advantage of the rapidly evolving media and was positioned as an All-American hero one capable of selling almost anything.
The biggest corporate spenders in the early years of the endorsement market were cigarette companies. Ruth and the Chicago Cubs were Old Gold; Joe DiMaggio, Early Wynn, and Bob Lemon pitched Camel; Willie Mays had Chesterfields; and Frank Gifford and the Brooklyn Dodgers were Lucky Strike men. The combination of high-profile, successful athletes and the classy images associated with smoking made for an ideal marketing relationship.
DiMaggio, in addition to his cigarette deal, was among the first to have an incentive-based endorsement contract. Heinz as in 57 different varieties was scheduled to pay DiMaggio $100,000 if he hit safely in 57 consecutive games. Close, but no (your company's name here) cigar.