Hero to zero….
Sporting stars thrust into the collective conscious has long been a part of our global society. Far removed from a bygone era where athletes were recognised solely for their sporting prowess, the evolution of the sportsman to celebrity has become stark. A magnetic combination of success, charisma, attractiveness, high profile and broad appeal has seen an explosion of athletes endorsing various brands.
Whilst peerless in their chosen sporting pursuits, comparative failures in other aspects of their lives have exposed the oft tenuous nature of the athlete / brand relationship. Interconnectivity, speed of information dissemination and opinion sharing has never been more prevalent, making a once inestimable globe appear small and with it, the indiscretions of the athlete endorser very public indeed.
‘I’ve let myself, fans and sponsors down ….’
Such indiscretions are generally met with a rapid response from the brands which they endorse, distancing themselves from crestfallen stars with a statement denouncing their actions and theatrically tearing up any existing contract. The justification for the termination of these partnerships can be multi-layered, reflecting the moral, ethical and corporate position of the organisation. However, when viewed in isolation of a marketing perspective, is this the best outcome?
Not so fast!
In determining whether a company should fight or flight, the rationale for such associations needs to be distilled. Kamins and Gupta (cited Stanley and Priluck, 2008, p.180) outline that ‘celebrities as spokespersons stems from a belief that pairing a product with a well-regarded celebrity improves consumers’ perceptions of the brand’. Exploring this further, organisations seek to develop associated learning amongst its targeted segments, with one adopted method being classical conditioning; that is, to pair a product that would otherwise not elicit a response for the consumer with a sporting identify which subsequently results in a positive response. (Shimp cited in Stanley and Priluck, 2008, p.181)
Importantly, the effectiveness of the endorsement is largely dependent on the inherent link between the endorser and product. Misra and Beatty (cited in Stanley and Priluck, 2008, p.180) contest that ‘celebrities will be most effective when there is some level of commonality between the celebrity and the product he or she is endorsing’. Additionally, the likelihood of an associative link with consumer attitude towards the brand is enhanced, which as Stanley and Priluck, (2008, p.183) explains, ‘Attitudes formulated via the classical conditioning mechanism are believed to be robust’.
One of the most recognisable falls from grace in recent memory, Tiger Woods, perhaps best reflects this conundrum. When news of his extramarital activities came to light, some of his sponsors were immediate in the cessation of their partnership, others choose to stick with him; but why?
When discussing the elaboration likelihood model Iacobucci (2014, p. 152), explains that it ‘basically posits two ways to your brain: a central path or a peripheral path’. With athlete endorsers considered to be in the peripheral, where the consumer is less involved in the purchase and not persuaded by the ads central content, is there likely to be an impact if the company retains the athlete as an endorser? Allen, Kardes, Walker, Langmeyer and Langmeyer (cited in Stanley and Priluck, 2008, p.182) suggest not, stating that ‘consistent with the elaboration likelihood model, research suggests that affect transfer is stronger in low-involvement situations’. A glance at the brands that dropped Woods during this period supports this position, with Accenture, a high involvement and more central path orientation ending the partnership and Gatorade, a low involvement product retaining him.
So what does this mean?
That from a strictly marketing position, athlete indiscretions and their apparent inevitability, does not necessarily need to spell the end. Marketers need to evaluate what product is being endorsed and how the target segment engages with it, either centrally or peripherally and determine the strength of the association before deciding.
That being said, prevention is the best form of cure and perhaps an investment in due diligence before signing athletes would make this discussion redundant?
Iacobucci, D. (2014) Marketing Management (MM), 4th Edition, South-Western, Cenage
Image 1: Justin Epure’s Sports Journal 2011, Olympic Athlete Endorsements, 20 April 2011, retrieved 10 April 2016, <http://justinepuresportandrecreation.blogspot.com.au/2011/04/olympic-athlete-endorsements.html>
Image 2: Complex Sports 2014, The Richest Athlete Endorsement Deals of All Time, 11 January 2014, retrieved 10 April 2016 <http://au.complex.com/sports/2014/01/riches-athlete-endorsement-deals/>
Image 3: CNN 2010, Tiger Endorsements, 18 February 2010, retrieved 10 April 2016, <http://edition.cnn.com/video/sports/2010/02/18/kosik.tiger.endorsements.cnn.640×360.jpg>
Till, B, Stanley, S, & Priluck, R 2008, ‘Classical conditioning and celebrity endorsers: An examination of belongingness and resistance to extinction’, Psychology & Marketing, 25, 2, pp. 179-196, Communication & Mass Media Complete, EBSCOhost, viewed 11 May 2016.