Using a sports star to promote a product is big business. But if the fit is wrong or the star goes astray, it can prove disastrous, says Robert Gray.
David Beckham and Roy Keane, until recently team-mates at Manchester United, are world-class footballers. But as brand ambassadors, they are leagues apart.
Vodafone shifted more than 50,000 Live! mobile phones in the three weeks after England captain Beckham began endorsing the brand. But soft drinks brand 7-Up endured a far more unpleasant experience with its sponsorship of erstwhile Ireland captain Keane, when he stormed out of the team and was subsequently sacked after a disagreement with manager Mick McCarthy just days before last year's World Cup finals.
7-Up had signed a pounds 500,000 nine-month deal with Keane that saw him appear in TV, billboard and radio ads. His face also featured on millions of cans, packaging and in-store promotional material. Keane's rancorous departure from the Far East left a brand marketing campaign in tatters.
While athlete endorsement can be highly effective, then, it is clearly not without a potential downside. 'Of all the sponsorship alternatives, creating links with an individual carries the highest risk,' says Hill & Knowlton group managing director for sports marketing and sponsorship Alun James. 'There is the question of their behaviour or they could lose form or break a leg.'
Recent stories focusing on the unpalatable - and in some cases, criminal - behaviour of certain Premier League football players has underlined the importance to marketers of not jeopardising their brand image by signing up sports stars whose actions might be damaging.
'The biggest thing for me is really getting involved with the athlete or team,' says Ketchum Sports Network director Steve Martin. 'You need a proper relationship. It's high risk - if something goes wrong, you have to be prepared. Work with the right agents and make sure you actually meet the athlete. Some people sign up without having sat down with the athlete.'
So how do you decide who to use? The first step is to look at the sport and ask whether it fits with your brand. Some agencies have sophisticated matching tools, such as SportZ, which is used by a number of WPP-owned agencies.
Once you decide on the sport, draw up a shortlist of appropriate athletes based on their public profile, backgrounds and breadth of their appeal.
Look at the other products they endorse. Are any in competition with yours? Do the other endorsements have an image that may conflict with your positioning?
'Why does Royal Bank of Scotland use Jack Nicklaus and Visa, Sir Steve Redgrave?' asks IMG Consulting senior vice-president Graham Walpole. 'Most tie-ups are where the company is associating itself with an individual of stature or authority. Where it is more dangerous is where the brand is rebellious, cool or anti-establishment.'
Most contracts now include a termination clause that can be activated should the athlete do anything to bring either themselves or their sport into disrepute. There are also clauses designed to prevent damaging publicity if the celebrity is seen, even inadvertently, to be endorsing a rival product - as happened with pop singer Britney Spears who, while endorsing Pepsi, was allegedly spotted drinking Coke. Most contracts forbid the celebrity from endorsing, intentionally or not, a rival brand for several years after their work promoting a brand ends.
What makes a good endorsement? One widely held as being successful is Anna Kournikova's work for Berlei's Shock Absorber sports bra carrying the memorable slogan 'Only the ball should bounce'. Kournikova's form on the court has been poor of late, but she's been a smash with commercial deals. Shock Absorber sales had a 150% uplift in the wake of the campaign.
Sports stars can also be used to reposition a brand, as Lucozade has done by using a stream of athletes from Daley Thompson through to Michael Owen. …