Donovan case study: turning a negative into a positive

By Paul Kennedy

So what's happens to a star from a marketing perspective when things go wrong? How do you turn a negative into a positive? One of the biggest surprises in the history of American soccer took place earlier this year when Jurgen Klinsmann cut Landon Donovan from the 2014 World Cup team. For more than a decade, Donovan had been the face of American soccer, and marketing campaigns featuring Donovan were already underway with the World Cup just weeks away on that day in late May when he was told he wouldn't be going to Brazil.

"I remember very vividly getting a call right after Landon left the practice field," said Richard Motzkin, his longtime representative, "and he was shocked and surprised, as was I, when he found out he had been cut from the team."

Millions of dollars had been spent on marketing campaigns, and Motzkin, the executive vice president & managing executive of global soccer at Wasserman Media Group, had to take the calls -- the good and the bad -- with the companies Donovan was endorsing. But just as important he had to help Donovan deal privately with the disappointment and anger and then begin to shape Donovan's message to the public.

At MediaPost's recent Marketing: Sports: Soccer in America sponsored by Soccer America, Motzkin explained how he helped get Donovan through the initial period that allowed him to then connect with sponsors, old and new. Here are a few keys ...

Discussion: Promise, Peril, And The Occasional Bite in Star Endorsements: Video

1. Use player's social media. "It came quickly to a point that didn't exist a few years ago and we let Donovan get his first message out on his social media."

2. Take the high road. "At the end of the day, I think you need to take the high road so we came up with in collaboration with Landon a very crafted message that expressed gratitude for everything he had achieved to date and appreciation for his fans."

3. Be authentic. "Candidly, the next point was probably anger. It was OK for him to say to the public how he felt about his omission and to say he didn't agree because that's how he felt."

4. Show perspective. "As Landon has gone through his last few games here, I think people understand and appreciate that as good a soccer player he is, he's actually an even better person and he's got a really good perspective on life. One of the things he's said about the cut is that in many ways it helped make him a better person in the sense he got perspective."

5. Offer empathy. "He had always been a guy who had gotten everything he wanted in life and this had really been the first time on the soccer field he didn't get what he wanted. He was able to step back and have empathy for the players who had been the final cuts, and learn from that, and figure out how do you grow from that, how do you grow from rejection, how do you use that to be more empathetic to people who might be in that position or will be in that situation in the future."

(Those interested in submitting Soccer Business Insider columns related to soccer and business should email Soccer America's Paul Kennedy for guidelines.)
5 comments about "Donovan case study: turning a negative into a positive".
  1. Mark Konty, December 7, 2014 at 2:31 a.m.

    "He had always been a guy who had gotten everything he wanted in life"...Including a six month sabbatical right smack dab in the middle of World Cup qualifying. Forget whether or not its a big F-U to Klinsmann and the entire national team program, how do you think his 'mates felt when he decided to sit a few out and get his head right, while they travelled to unwelcoming places and played tough qualifying games. Then he shows up to training camp a little short-winded and heavy, admits he isn't his best every day, and expects a spot on the team. If Donovan had been phenomenal in National Team camp, there is no way that Klinsmann could have left him at home, but he wasn't phenomenal and he bailed on the team at a key point in the cycle, so Klinsmann did the right thing and let the rest of the team know that every place is earned and no one gets a legacy spot. Donovan does get what he wants, that is why he didn't go to the last World Cup.

  2. beautiful game, December 7, 2014 at 11:22 a.m.

    Mark; finely an unbiased opinion.

  3. cisco martinez, December 7, 2014 at 12:20 p.m.

    Mark, you are way off. Bruce arena, Tim Howard, Bradley, just to name a few, and a majority of pundits had Donovan going to Brazil. Klinsmann made the decision and was proven wrong, how can I make such a judgement? Look at what Donovan has done in previous World Cups in 2002 and 2010. Klinsmann has argued that certain players were ahead of him, but never said whom or why? As a former coach, there is nothing wrong with what klinsmann did but give a specific reason, players like Donovan or even Clarence Goodson, deserve why they were omitted from any roster, they are the ones that sacrifice there whole life to play in the biggest tournament that comes in a lifetime. I would love klinsmann to say, won do, Greene, zusi, are better than Donovan because it would do two thing tell the truth on klinsmanns behalf and also show how and why klinsmann is wrong.

  4. Kent James, December 8, 2014 at 10:08 a.m.

    Mark, you failed to mention that when JK became the national team coach, instead of giving LD credit for all he had done for the team and keeping him as a mainstay, he made it a point to say that LD would have to earn his spot on the team just like any rookie. Every spot should be earned (as you say), but JK seemed to go out of his way to try to make it difficult for LD. Instead of LD telling JK to take a long walk on a short pier, LD went through the process of earning a spot, which he did by an exemplary performance in the Gold Cup. He may not have had a "phenomenal" camp to make the team, but he shouldn't have had to, just a solid one (and as Arena said, if LD was not among the top 23 players, then we have the talent to win the cup). He was not some unproven rookie; experience matters. LD is somewhat unique in his willingness to speak honestly in public, and his comment about not being able to play 12 straight days and "have 12 straight great days" is true of any athlete that is honest about their own performance (especially an aging athlete). JK's problem with LD was that he does not understand that not every athlete is the same, and some players take different paths than others, and instead of dealing with those differences, he cut him. JK wanted to let everyone know that he was the boss, and it was his team (both of which are obviously true), but in doing so by cutting Donovan he created controversy that the team did not need, and undermined the team's chances for success. It was a mistake, and Jozy's injury made that painfully obvious.

  5. Alex G. Sicre, December 8, 2014 at 2:28 p.m.

    A-men Kent.

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