Despite winning a gold medal, it has proven to be a pretty ordinary Olympics for Ryan Lochte. The American swimmer has lost four lucrative endorsement deals in the last few days all because of a late night bender in Brazil.
After a big night out in Rio, Lochte and three fellow swimmers stopped at a service station. Discovering the toilet to be locked they urinated outside on the forecourt and Lochte allegedly engaged in a bit of mild, pissed-up vandalism.
It’s not exactly the stuff of Olympic legend but hardly a sponsorship shredding moment either. I don’t know many young, fit men who haven’t taken out their alcoholic exuberance on a public toilet at least once in their life (and if any of the facilities management team from the Tebay Service Station on the M6 circa 1992 happen to be reading this, I did learn my lesson and I am still so very, very sorry).
What caused all the ruckus was what Lochte did next. Interviewed by American TV, the swimmer forgot to mention any of the toilet antics and instead claimed his cab had been pulled over by men who pretended to be policemen but then robbed them at gunpoint.
The big problem for Lochte is that it quickly became apparent his fake policemen were actually security guards and the robbery was an attempt by those guards to compensate the garage owner for the vandalism the four swimmers had allegedly committed.
Eventually, Lochte was forced to admit he had “over-exaggerated” the incident, apologise for making such an unfounded slur on the Brazilian nation and confess that the reason for all the chaos was that he was completely smashed at the time. None of these three messages play particularly well across the Pond, with The New York Post describing him as an “ugly American”, along with the headline “Liar, liar, Speedo on fire”.
Not surprisingly Lochte’s capers quickly forced the hand of his four sponsoring brands. Speedo, the largest of the four sponsors, said “we cannot condone behaviour that is counter to the values this brand has long stood for” and cut him. Ralph Lauren, skincare brand Syneron-Candela and Japanese mattress maker Airweave quickly followed suit.
The move was met with the usual second-class social media jamboree of marketing ninjas explaining how the saga had destroyed Lochte’s “personal brand” and why the sponsors in question were right to distance themselves from Lochte who had “ruined his personal franchise”.
The Lochte Niche
I am not convinced. Step back from the current saga and avoid the usual formulaic nonsense about reputations and crisis management and a very different perspective emerges.
Lochte’s sponsorship deals were little more than minor-league stuff. Two of the deals were group sponsorships (Ralph Lauren and Speedo) and the other two were hardly top-tier brands. ESPN estimated last week that the four deals paid Lochte a combined salary of no more than $1m. Not bad, but not great either for an athlete who is a six-time Olympic gold medallist. And at least two of the deals were limited to the Rio Games. Even if Lochte had headed home respectably, they were presumably set to end once the Olympic fanfare subsided.
That’s what you get for being only a relatively famous, slightly moronic and very bland athlete. Lochte might actually find himself in a more lucrative post-Games sponsorship situation thanks to his late-night outhouse incident. He is certainly considerably more famous now thanks to his drunken toilet adventures than anything his Olympic accomplishments achieved in the past. There is a lesson there for all of us.
He might be more famous, but he is aspirational enough now to attract new sponsors? Using exclusive celebrity endorsement data and a perceptual map (both of which I created earlier today in my bathroom while shaving) it has now become very clear to me that Lochte might actually have stumbled, quite literally, into a niche segment within the world of global brand endorsement.
Traditionally, as my perceptual map clearly illustrates, most world-class athletes combine extraordinary levels of physical prowess with impressive feats of moral fortitude – top-right quadrant. Think Chariots of Fire or the British women’s hockey team. You would no more have expected to see Jesse Owens getting hammered in a 1930s speakeasy than encounter Bobby Moore exiting a 60s strip joint in Soho. Most great sports men and women tend to be morally and mentally elite too.
But Ryan Lochte finds himself in the potentially lucrative position of extending past the Tysons and Woods of sporting endorsement into the undiscovered territory of a completely new sponsorship quadrant that combines elite sporting prowess with a misguided moral compass and lack of mental acuity – bottom-right quadrant.
All Lochte’s management team now have to do is to identify which brands could benefit most from an association that connotes both ultimate physical performance and questionable ethical principles and there are some big deals to be done. I’d start by approaching companies that make diet pills, treatments for erectile dysfunction and anything made in Russia.
Fear not Ryan! Your greatest golden moment may yet await you and this time you don’t even have to get your hair wet.