If video killed the radio star, did brands kill the athletes?

4 Aug

So it’s official. The London 2012 games have been a massive case of over promise and under deliver, and no doubt the various sporting bodies and institutes and more so the media will conduct a rigorous review of just went wrong. Sure the athletes that started to believe their own hype, or spent too long reading every tweet and that messed with their mojo whilst they were on the blocks. Maybe they just weren’t good enough when it counted.

But that’s not the point of this post. More so the interesting thing I’ve noticed out of this campaign is the role of sponsorship and endorsement in the lead up to the games, and the negative impact for brand and athlete when things haven’t gone to plan.

Top of the dais has to be James Magnussen and the terrible “Can’t” campaign. Unless you’ve been boycotting the coverage you would have seen the spot – Magnussen running along what eerily looks like the infamous Gap in Sydney known to be a popular place for those choosing to end it all with a dive off the cliffs. As he’s running he is seen to be talking up his chances, before the pesky T comes along and puts doubt in to his head. Unlike real life, the T ends up making that fateful dive off the cliff and James seems all set to dominate in the pool. As we all know now, it appears that T ended up following Magnussen to London and turning “can” in to “can’t”.

Ego aside, I really struggle to understand why an athlete would agree to be involved in such a spot, and more so why a brand would accept such a risky script from the agency. What could you possibly gain from being in a campaign that totally puts a success noose around your neck. Sure if he won we’d be cheering, but for him, not Com Bank, and as history has shown, the ultimate take out of the whole campaign is can’t , certainly not can and neither brand nor athlete win out of this.

Then there is Swisse, a very switched on business, doing some great work and more so propping up many athletes with endorsements. Now for them, I think this is more a case of bad luck, having a spot featuring Cadel Evans with the music track singing “how many times in my life did I feel like giving up?” Usually, given the strength of Cadel the track was a good fit – especially the reprise “But I’m staying strong, ain’t no stopping me”. But alas, after a big TDF Evans was ruled out for being “too tired to compete” so viewers sitting at home watching spot after spot after hearing this news start to call BS on the brand.

Then even before the games there was the interesting case of reigning Olympic champion triathlete Emma Snowsill. Despite some patchy form, you’d expect the reigning champion to be a walk up starter to the games, and Qantas were obviously very confident she’d be there, so decided to use her as a part of their Olympic campaign. So there proudly adorning airports around the country were massive signs wishing Emma luck on her way to London. Unfortunately for both Qantas and Snowsill, due to some ‘subjective’ selective entry requirements, whilst Emma has gone to London, it’s to be a commentator for channel 10, not to win gold.

All of these brands had to rapidly pull these campaigns given the public comment on them and the fact they looked so stupid in retrospect. So not only did it ultimately damage the brand perception but more so it would have cost them money in terms of canceling media or pulling together alternative creative to make the use of the media inventory.

So it seems that singing up athletes prior to the games is a risky business. Sure get it right and it’s a master stroke and you’ll both be heroes, but get it wrong and I’m afraid all you have to look forward to is the please explain from management.

The counter to this strategy, is to sign up the athlete post games, once you know they have been successful. In a previous life we did this with a swimmer now residing in the ‘where are they now files’ named Jodie Henry. Like many athletes, Henry hit her straps at the right time, being the Athens Olympics, and in addition to a world record, she game home with about 4 gold medals (contrast that to the current teams performance!). So awaiting her as the door of the Qantas flight opened was us with a cheque book, and a multi year deal. We were approaching the Commonwealth Games in two years in Melbourne and as a sponsor we wanted a ready made star who could proudly front our chocolate and soft drink brands.

Now besides no obvious brand connection, this was the a gold medal performance in wasted money. Maybe it was a bad sign when the character in the Freddo suit vomited at the launch, but it really hit its high note when we rolled Henry out to a national sales conference to talk about motivation and what it takes to have gold winning performance (selling sugary products??). Her response is still etched in my mind, as is the look of the sponsorship manager and market director when she responded with “For me winning isn’t really important. I just enjoy swimming, but I don’t like competition and training” cue the crickets here, and despite the emcee trying his darnedest to link it back to selling more, it was a lost cause. What’s more her performance at the Com Games in 2006 failed to live up to the hype, and what’s worse the lasting memory most employees had (besides the awkward motivation speech), was that a one tonne chocolate carving of an athlete will always look pretty crap (yes this was actually done – google it!)

So clearly signing up athletes post winning glory is also fraught with danger, so what’s the answer? Clearly there is a powerful role athletes can play for brands. And more so it is a good thing when brands can help give back to support the lesser known athletes with endorsement money to help achieve their dreams.

For me, I think it’s all about the messaging and tone of the campaign. Definitely sign up potential stars prior to them achieving their ultimate success. Not only will it mean you can get in with a better price, but you also have the credibility of showing consumers that you’ve been involved with the athlete in their lead up, and hopefully your product or brand has in some way helped them achieve their success, showing all important relevance of the brand fit. But the kicker for me, is to go softly, softly. Be honest and humble; messaging such as ‘proudly helping on their road to glory” or the like will show consumers you’re not only supporting the athlete, and therefore relevant for the Games coverage, but you also ensure you don’t look overly cocky and only interested in cashing in on their (hopeful) success. The alternative of course is you just make brilliant brand campaigns that don’t rely on athletes seemingly looking interested in your product.

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One Response to “If video killed the radio star, did brands kill the athletes?”

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