Star athletes who gave brands an image problem
Mumbai: It’s been a tough few weeks for football player Lionel Messi, and, perhaps, even tougher for the companies that associate themselves with him. His retirement from international football, announced last week after a penalty-shoot loss to Chile in the Copa America, didn’t rock the brand endorsement boat. But his conviction for tax fraud is likely to unnerve every advertiser. A Barcelona court on Wednesday sentenced Messi and his father to 21 months in prison for tax fraud. While it seems unlikely that the football player will actually go to jail, the recent developments are expected to make advertisers think about how synonymous they want their brands to be with the celebrities that endorse them.
While Tata Motors Ltd that has signed up Messi chose not to comment on the recent developments, experts say the company will probably weigh the pros and cons before taking any action. “In itself, the use of celebrity for a brand has to be done in a nuanced manner. The science behind it is fairly well established—you are looking for a celebrity whose characteristics reflect your brands. Now, what is impossible to predict is the human side of that celebrity. So, what brands do is to react in a crisis, to the human aspect of that celebrity, after considering the multiple aspects of its impact,” said Kiran Khalap, co-founder, Chlorophyll Brand and Communications Consultancy Pvt. Ltd. In most cases, the decision is to wait till proven guilty. Nike went back to Maria Sharapova, while Porsche did not, he pointed out. “If brand Tata has 148 years of trust behind it, can a small blip like Messi affect the trust garnered over all these years? Well, that’s an executive decision for Tatas to make,” he added.
Indranil Das Blah, chief operating officer at Kwan Entertainment and Marketing Solutions, a talent management firm argued that the development is not likely to have an adverse impact on (the brand value of) Tata Motors. “There is very little likelihood that Messi and his father will go to jail over this. The verdict, it seems, can be appealed in a higher court. So as I see it, this development will get a lot of media coverage but the noise will eventually die down in a couple of days,” he said. However, things change dramatically if the celebrity actually goes to jail. Then any association with a celebrity who has been convicted, is likely to have a negative impact on the brand, Blah added.
Here are a few other sports personalities whose brush with the law, sent their brand partners and associates into a huddle.
Tiger Woods: In 2009, the world literally fell apart for the American professional golfer after his extramarital indiscretions were revealed by several different women, through the media. He admitted that he had cheated on his wife Elin Nordegren and even took time out to focus on his marriage, but he and his wife eventually divorced. Not only did this affect his ranking, but several brands such as Accenture, Gatorade, AT&T, Gillette and Tag Heuer decided to part ways with him.
Oscar Pistorius: In 2013, the double-amputee sprinter and Paralympic champion, fell from grace after he was accused of fatally shooting his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, inside his home. He had up until then been an inspiration to many, and acquired worldwide fame for overcoming his disability to compete in the 2012 Olympic Games. Making him a glowing choice for brands looking to ride on those attributes. Brands such as Nike and Oakley, among others cut their association with him almost immediately. On Wednesday, the high court in Pretoria, Johannesburg, handed out a six-year prison sentence to Pistorius for murdering Steenkamp.
Maria Sharapova: In June this year, tennis player and five-time Grand Slam winner Maria Sharapova was banned for two years after failing a drugs test. The 29-year old, Russian star tested positive for the controversial banned medication meldonium during January’s Australian Open. She insisted that she would appeal the decision which could effectively end her career. Brands such as Tag Heuer, Nike and Porsche suspended their association with the star. Nike, which had put its association on hold during the allegations, eventually decided to stand by her.
Also Read: Maria Sharapova handed two-year doping ban
Lance Armstrong: In 2012, the American professional road racing cyclist and winner of the Tour de France, seven consecutive years in a row, faced doping allegations. In 2012, a US Anti-Doping Agency investigation concluded that Armstrong had used performance-enhancing drugs over the course of his career. He chose not to contest the charges and received a lifetime ban from competing in all sports. He was also stripped of his Tour de France victories in 2012, following the scandal. The relationship with brands such as Nike, USPS, Honey Stinger-a nutrition food brand, bicycle-maker Trek, Easton-Bell Sports and 24 Hour Fitness, a chain of health clubs, all of which had associated with him for his integrity and success in the sport and overcoming cancer, quickly soured.
Michael Phelps: In 2008, the American swimming champion and the most decorated Olympian of all time with 22 medals, was pulled under after a photograph emerged of him smoking a bong at a party. He was suspended from competition for a few months, and lost his sponsorship with Kellogg’s which decided not to renew their contract with him.