Major com­pa­nies often pursue a strategy of hitching their brands to a star to gain cus­tomer appeal and market share. How does this help the com­pany, and what hap­pens if the ath­lete or celebrity falls from public grace? In this Q&A, mar­keting pro­fessor Andrew Rohm addresses these ques­tions from a busi­ness per­spec­tive, while David Czes­niuk, of the Center for Sport in Society, con­siders the athlete’s and the public’s point of view.

Andrew Rohm, Asso­ciate Pro­fessor of Mar­keting, Col­lege of Busi­ness Administration

Com­pa­nies often turn to ath­letes and other celebri­ties to endorse their brands and prod­ucts. In what ways do these endorse­ments ben­efit the com­pa­nies?
Ath­letes and celebri­ties who endorse cer­tain prod­ucts and ser­vices can help com­pa­nies project their desired brand image in a way that is imme­di­ately under­stand­able to the public. For instance, Accenture’s spon­sor­ship of Tiger Woods helped a global company—but one with a name that car­ried little intrinsic public meaning—to project an image of per­for­mance, excel­lence and lead­er­ship with its “Be A Tiger” campaign.

It is no sur­prise, there­fore, that Accen­ture was one of the first com­pa­nies to pull out of its Tiger Woods spon­sor­ship when the details of his affairs became public.

More­over, it is the “fit” between the com­pany and the star that often deter­mines how suc­cessful the spon­sor­ship can be. Woods’ ongoing rela­tion­ship with Nike has remained intact, in large part because of the close fit between his skills as a golfer and Nike’s suc­cessful efforts to grow within the golf market. How­ever, Buick’s spon­sor­ship of Tiger never really made sense because it was not a car brand that we could imagine him dri­ving, as evi­denced by his dri­ving a Cadillac at the time of his Thanks­giving Day accident.

When a brand severs ties with a public figure, does the com­pany suffer finan­cially?
Usu­ally brands sever ties with ath­letes or celebri­ties for good rea­sons: the star runs afoul of the law or rep­re­sents him­self or her­self in ways detri­mental to the image of the com­pany. But there may be instances where public sen­ti­ment towards the ath­lete or celebrity is such that some con­sumers may dis­con­tinue doing busi­ness with the com­pany to protest the spon­sor­ship being dropped. This hap­pened a few years ago with Pepsi. How­ever, this is most likely a short-​​term response by consumers.

How does brand loy­alty factor into the equa­tion?
In many cases, con­sumers will develop a lasting affinity or loy­alty to a brand simply because of the brand’s endorse­ment of an ath­lete or celebrity. The most suc­cessful example of this is Nike’s rela­tion­ship with Michael Jordan. Some say that Jordan him­self is the reason Nike has become the world’s top-​​selling bas­ket­ball shoe and apparel company.

In indus­tries fea­turing undif­fer­en­ti­ated and commodity-​​like prod­ucts, it is some­times a spe­cific ath­lete or celebrity who helps to dif­fer­en­tiate the brand in the mind of the consumer.

David Czes­niuk, Director of Oper­a­tions, Center for Sport in Society

How do ath­letes choose the brands they agree to endorse?
While I’d like to think it’s based on brands that best align with their values and per­son­al­i­ties, often times I think their agents lead the way and base these agree­ments almost entirely on how lucra­tive they could be.

I’m sure some thought is given to the suc­cess or poten­tial for suc­cess that the brand reflects. But I sus­pect that much more thought comes from the com­pa­nies as they choose an ath­lete, because there is more risk for them, con­sid­ering they are hitching their wagon to indi­vidual per­son­al­i­ties who could expe­ri­ence drastic life changes at a moment’s notice, as we’ve seen with Tiger Woods, (pro­fes­sional quar­ter­back) Michael Vick, and (pitcher) Roger Clemens.

What is the impact on youth and high-​​school ath­letes of seeing their ath­letic heroes stumble to the point that they lose their endorse­ment deals?
One would hope that our youth would learn respon­si­bility and account­ability from such mis­steps, and that there are actu­ally con­se­quences, even for these seem­ingly super-​​human indi­vid­uals. Unfor­tu­nately, I think that ath­letes who make serious errors in judg­ment often times are mar­tyred by their fans, even before they have made up for their mis­takes. There was a surge in Michael Vick jersey sales after his indict­ment and a surge in sales of Duke lacrosse mer­chan­dise after sev­eral players were accused of rape.

We want to encourage youth to value these “leaders” for their strengths and pos­i­tive qual­i­ties, but to also appre­ciate them as human beings who are not immune from error, and who need to con­tinue learning and growing just as everyone else does.

To learn more about the Center for Sport in Society, visit: http://​www​.north​eastern​.edu/​s​p​o​r​t​i​n​s​o​c​i​e​ty/
To learn more about the Col­lege of Busi­ness Admin­is­tra­tion, visit: http://​cba​.neu​.edu/