Celebrity scares

The cult of celebrity is ubiquitous, not least in sport where professional athletes endorse products. Such associations are valuable to brands, but when stars stop performing, the negative publicity can be far-reaching – as Nike has discovered

Tiger Woods, one of the world’s greatest golfers, has been off form lately. But he’s hoping that by switching from the Nike golf club he uses to tee-off to his old favourite, a Titleist 975D, he will improve his driving accuracy and increase the number of times he hits the fairway.

For Nike, which signed a five-year equipment endorsement deal with the über-athlete starting in 2001 and reputed to be worth £90m, the switch is rather embarrassing. Woods started using the Nike irons last September, but while things went well at first, his performance of late has begun to slide.

Nike says it will set its technicians to work designing a new driver, one that is more suitable for Woods. But it is hard to assess the damage Woods’ switch will do to Nike’s reputation in golf equipment. Endorsements by golf stars are central to marketing products in this field and weekend amateurs love to aspire to owning and using the clothes, styles and particularly the clubs used by their professional heroes.

The story highlights once again the perils for a brand in outsourcing its reputation to a famous personality. From Brylcreem’s endorsement by David Beckham – who promptly shaved his head – to Woolworths’ use of Dennis Pennis star Paul Kaye as brand spokesman until he publicly called himself a “cunt” for doing so, there is a long list of upsets associated with personality endorsement.

Scoring some own goals

On the sports field, not only might the personality in question commit some embarrassing blunder (from Paul “Gazza” Gascoigne to Roy Keane), but there is also the possibility that their performance may falter, leaving a brand associated with a loser rather than the winner they originally signed up. There are few hard-and-fast rules to preventing embarrassment, but coming up with a watertight contract and factoring in the risks of human foibles are essential.

Of Nike, sponsorship consultant Karen Earl says: “Nike markets itself as a brand by associating itself with ‘number ones’. In golf, it has gone for Tiger Woods. This is to do with establishing itself in the golf products arena.”

But a Nike spokesman denies it focuses on “number ones”, saying the company sponsors other golfers such as Nick Faldo. The brand sponsors Manchester United, but also has deals with Sunderland and Leeds Utd, he says. He denies Woods was signed up as a way of “bridging the gap” as it entered a new product area.

By associating itself with the idealism of sport – human endeavour and purity of spirit – Nike also runs the risk of appearing to cheapen these ideals. It may seem that Tiger Woods felt obliged through his contract to use Nike clubs, even though he wasn’t happy with them. As sports sponsorship consultant Matthew Patten says: “There is no question he uses Nike stuff because they pay him to do so.” Although he concedes: “In reality, Tiger Woods wouldn’t do it if he felt it would damage his game.”

To add to Nike’s woes, in an interview with Golf Magazine earlier this year, professional golfer Phil Mickelson blamed Woods’ recent poor form on “inferior equipment” adding that “Tiger is the only player who is good enough to overcome the equipment he’s stuck with.” After an angry reaction from Nike, Mickelson has since claimed that his remark was not intended as a “knock on any other manufacturer.”

Nike denies Woods is under any pressure to use its equipment. It says in a statement: “True to our word, Tiger Woods can play any piece of equipment he chooses. He’s unhappy with the way he’s been driving the ball and has chosen to make a change to something he’s more familiar with – his old driver. This shift does not affect our relationship in any way; in fact, we will begin testing new designs with Tiger at the earliest convenient date.”

Once the longest straight-driver in the world, Woods has been hitting fairways only 64 per cent of the time on the current US Tour, placing him 128th out of 196 in driving accuracy. In his first drive in a professional tournament, he drove the ball 336 yards down the middle, but he now averages 293 yards – 24th place in the driving-distance statistics.

It’s par for the course

Nike launched its Nike Golf division in 1992 offering a range of clothes and has extended its offer since. In a future where footwear orders could slip further in the US, it is important for Nike to extend the brand into other areas. In June 2002, it started making golf clubs, but some believe the ubiquity of its branding does not play well on the fairways and in the clubhouses, where 45-year-old Pringle-sweatered golf snobs initially turned their noses up at wearing the same swoosh logos brandished by street-smart fans of gangster rap.

That is why Woods’ sponsorship has been so vital to Nike’s status in the golf equipment sector – worth some $2bn (£1.25bn) in the US and $1.5bn (£930m) in Europe. The deal enabled the sports giant to launch the “TW” sub-brand and associate itself with golf’s number one performer. But it is now facing the prospect of its equipment having a poor perception, or of its endorsement property being off-form.

As Ryan Lauder, European product marketing director of top golfing brand TaylorMade-Adidas Golf, says: “From an advertising point of view, we have a similar issue with Adidas. We are trying to position the product in exclusive channels and golf shops, but when you have a mass-market brand and try to take it to a more discerning market, sometimes you struggle.”

TaylorMade was acquired by Adidas in 1997 as part of its Salomon take-over. Lauder says that personality endorsements have been important in giving the brand credibility among amateurs.

So given these swings and roundabouts, was Nike sensible in ploughing a huge £90m into its contract with Woods? There were noises at the time that this was a deal too far and that it would not be worth the investment. But Alastair Macdonald, managing director of sport sponsorship consultancy Connexus, says it was good value for both parties. It would be impossible for Nike to get the same level of coverage in 100 different markets for $20m (£12.4m) a year by using advertising alone.

If anything, he believes Woods could have squeezed more money out of Nike and, he says, this is one reason sports sponsorship is such good value. “Rights owners don’t understand the value of their own properties, so they sell them cheap. They undervalue them,” he says, and adds that sponsorship is highly effective compared with television advertising, which is approaching 50 years old and has lost credibility with the public, who are “resistant and sceptical” about it.

“Advertising communicates through claiming, whereas sponsorship does it through association. It demonstrates the value of your brand, it says ‘this is the kind of company we are’. It is also much more cost-effective for worldwide marketing,” says Macdonald. He claims his own research shows that sponsorship is three- to seven-times more effective per pound spent than television in raising brand awareness.

Oops, they did it again

And these days, the growing power of celebrity seems to know no bounds. Celebrity gossip magazines are one of the fastest-growing areas in publishing. Brands’ use of celebrities to endorse products is growing and brands are increasingly finding that the celebrities are causing them some embarrassment.

Jamie Oliver once admitted that he didn’t use Sainsbury’s supplies for his restaurant, while actress Helena Bonham Carter signed up as the face of Yardley cosmetics and then admitted that she did not wear make-up. Lloyds TSB dropped a campaign featuring Cold Feet star John Thomson last year after tabloid papers ran stories about him having a drink problem. Thomson had at one point appeared on TV advertising two different products: Lloyds TSB and Hellmann’s mayonnaise.

Celebrity overkill

Endorsement saturation is a common problem for brands, as there are few really world-class sports people, actors and singers that are worth paying top dollar for. Who wants to associate their brand with a second-rate, C-list celebrity, unless it is to make a joke out of it? And besides, there are not that many celebrities who can be depended upon not to make a fool of themselves and the brand.

So, dependable David Beckham has become heavily promoted. He has a contract with Vodafone and has publicised its picture messaging service. While he played for Manchester United, whose shirts are sponsored by Vodafone, there wasn’t a problem. But now that he is moving to Real Madrid, which is sponsored by phone manufacturer Siemens, there is the possibility of a clash of interests.

However, Connexus’ Macdonald, who works for Siemens says it is possible that the two companies will do a joint promotion, since Siemens makes phones for Vodafone.

Despite the pitfalls, brands continue to search for the perfect celebrity tie-up. Ad agency Bates used celebrities such as Elton John for Royal Mail and struck the Paul Kaye contract with Woolworths. Managing director Chris Herd says: “Every brand is searching for a distinctive, ownable property: an icon, something that can carry their message across lots of different media.

“Celebrities are obvious examples of being able to create those properties. You can take that well-known face from TV into print, in stores or below the line. It is a wonderfully flexible way of creating something where you can put words into their mouths.”

Herd worked at Leagas Delaney on the BBC’s Perfect Day film, which featured dozens of celebrities singing lines from the Lou Reed song. “It gave a stature and scale to that ad, which was about creating something jaw-droppingly big,” he says.

There have been a number of multiple celebrity ads, such as Christmas campaigns by Woolworths and Marks & Spencer and Nike itself has assembled some of the world’s great footballers for its ad campaigns. This is one way round the problem of celebrity embarrassment: by having a variety of them, it will be barely noticed when one suddenly stops performing as desired.

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