When you think of the Puma King or adidas Predator soccer product lines, do you think of Pelé and David Beckham respectively? If so, it is likely that player endorsements have influenced your thinking.
Endorsements are a way for companies to associate themselves directly with a player, his/her team, the matches they play in and their individual and team performances. This is particularly helpful for companies whose products are not visible on the pitch e.g. a financial services company.
Companies use endorsees to promote a company, brand, product, service, or event. Activation of an endorsement ranges from a player simply using a company's products to the full integration of a player in a marketing campaign e.g. print-advertising, television & radio commercials, collateral materials, website activities, in-store displays, consumer-based promotions as well as business-to-business initiatives such as VIP hospitality.
The biggest challenge is to find a player who is compatible with your company or brand, someone respected by, and popular with, consumers. The association has to be authentic, credible, and compelling. Additionally, companies must pay close attention to the other companies in a player's endorsement portfolio to ensure that their company's positioning of a player is consistent with others.
While working for adidas International in the late 1990s we developed a "Player Identification Profile" in an attempt to evaluate the worth of an endorsement to the company from both a sporting and commercial perspective. In addition to the usual criteria e.g. player's position, his/her style of play, popularity with fans, marketability, level of media coverage, level of influence in multiple markets etc, great emphasis was placed on a player's character and his/her compatibility with the brand.
Similarly, at Umbro in the early 1990s we participated in a "Brand Equity" research program that sought to evaluate sponsorship properties and the potential effect they might have on the company's brand equity quotient. The sponsorship of Michelle Akers in 1991 (the first national, monetary sponsorship of a female soccer player) is a good example of a successful endorsement that added, greatly, to a brand's equity. In this particular case Michelle helped launched Umbro's entrance into women's soccer.
During the build up to the FIFA World Cup in France in 1998 I witnessed an extremely successful endorsement relationship involving adidas, Zinedine Zidane, and the France national team. It culminated in Zidane scoring two goals in the final game and France lifting the World Cup trophy after having united the nation and turning the world of football on its head. adidas' campaign "La Victoire Est En Nous" (The Victory Is In Us) appeared prophetic in describing how individual players such as Zidane and the France national team would achieve success lending great credibility to the brand association, the endorsement and the campaign.
Companies try and select players whose style of play is compatible with the purported attributes of specific products. Thus, David Beckham is a perfect spokesman for the Predator range of footwear which help players who are capable to put spin on a ball. Beckham was instrumental in the initial adoption and popularity of the Predator range in the UK, and since then, around the globe.
Companies like to ensure that a player's endorsement portfolio consists of brands on par with their own brand's status.
In high-profile player endorsement portfolios multiple brands regularly develop cross-promotions with the player as the centerpiece in the promotions.
Player endorsements, however, are a double-edged sword and sponsors can suffer bad publicity when their endorsees fail to live up to public expectations, as was the case with Paul Gascoigne and Diego Maradona. In today's connected world, all news, good, and bad, is global and instant. Managing the negative publicity associated with a player endorsement gone wrong is something that all companies have to react to in a swift and professional manner in order to protect their brand's credibility and integrity.
When brands get it right players serve as the personification of the brand's identity on the pitch as is the case with Ronaldinho and Rooney for Nike and Zinedine Zidane and Lionel Messi's for adidas.
Mick Hoban is a native of England who started his professional career as a player with Aston Villa and played for three clubs in the North American Soccer League. He served as Community Relations Director for the Portland Timbers, is an "A" Licensed Coach, a former coach at college and club levels, a former member of the NSCAA's Governor's Council and has worked in the soccer industry for Nike, Umbro and adidas, for whom he served as a consultant. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his company's website at www.soccersolutions.com.