After the ball-tampering scandal in Australian cricket, a Reuters report last week said that the Australian cricket team lost a major sponsor and a “host of large companies tore up branding deals with individual players". The report added that fund manager Magellan Financial Group cancelled its team naming rights deal, while Commonwealth Bank of Australia dropped players caught in the scandal. Footwear and sports equipment brand ASICS, too, terminated its sponsorship contract with David Warner and Cameron Bancroft immediately. “The decisions and actions taken by David Warner and Cameron Bancroft are not something that ASICS tolerates and are contrary to the values the company stands for," it said in a statement.

It is not the first time that brands have disassociated from their tarnished ambassadors. And it’s not difficult to see why ASICS and others were quick to sever ties with Australian cricketers.

According to Sanjay Sarma, founder of branding and design consultancy Design Worldwide, after ASICS, breakfast cereal brand Weet-Bix also dropped Steve Smith. Large brands have a lot at stake when they put money behind their endorsers, who constitute a variable whose conduct is never under their control. “While positive conduct leads to exponential gains, negative associations can erode market value in no time. So it’s a tricky path. But when endorsers set a wrong example, brands need to take a hard unemotional business decision. If the endorser does not represent the brand values anymore, he/she deserves to go," he says.

Weet-Bix, for instance, is targeted at children and “at this moment Steve Smith is not exactly the best role model that parents would like their kids to follow," adds Sarma.

Indranil Das Blah, chief operating officer at Kwan Entertainment and Marketing Solutions, believes that in case of a controversy around a brand ambassador, knee-jerk reactions don’t work well nor does non-action by brands.

Clearly, in the event of a scandal involving a celebrity, fame can very quickly transform into notoriety and a positive image into a negative one. Since the brand pays for the rub-off it receives from the celebrity, this obviously creates a huge concern for the marketer. “Usually, the concern is based on commercial, rather than ethical considerations," says Samit Sinha, managing partner, Alchemist Brand Consulting.

Without going into the morality of such actions, it is understandable why ASICS would want to cancel its contract with David Warner and Cameron Bancroft. Sinha says the instance must be viewed in a cultural context, which can differ from market to market. Australians take their sports seriously and they play hard to win. At the same time they pride themselves on playing fair—within boundaries that they define for themselves. “When someone transgresses those boundaries, they tend to be far less forgiving towards that person, than would happen, say, in a country like India, where these are more likely to be viewed as minor misdemeanours." There are many such instances in India, he feels, where the celebrity’s popularity and fan following has remained almost undiminished despite controversies and proven misconduct, if not crime. “Some notable examples are Azharuddin and Ajay Jadeja in cricket or Salman Khan and Sanjay Dutt in cinema, not to mention scores of politicians," he adds.

Cultural variations notwithstanding, the truth is that a brand must disassociate itself from the ambassador engulfed in a controversy. “It could get damaged if it continues association with controversial celebrities found guilty of misdemeanours. The brand ambassador embodies the virtues of the brand and any negativity will immediately be associated with the brand. Sometimes, this damage can be irreparable, feels Blah.

However, before signing up brand endorsement deals, the most important thing to look for in a potential ambassador is a synergy in terms of virtues. What an ambassador stands for should be the very attributes that the brand stands for or aspires to have. “For instance, someone like Amitabh Bachchan lends credibility and longevity to brands he endorses whereas brands that feature Virat (Kohli) often have youthful zest, style and high quality performance as common attributes," says Blah.

Agrees Sarma: “Values are most important. Brands have a voice. And they stand for certain values. The endorser is merely an amplification of that voice to a larger audience in quick time. Aligning with the right set of values is what is most important."

In the past, too, several brands have severed ties with their ambassadors. Accenture dropped Tiger Woods after a sex scandal. Lance Armstrong lost several contracts after his drug scandal. Maria Sharapova lost Tag Heuer after her doping ban. “Very few brands actually stand by fallen heroes. Nike and Gillette stood by Tiger Woods, but on revised terms and value," Sarma adds.

Shuchi Bansal is Mint’s media, marketing and advertising editor. Ordinary Post will look at pressing issues related to all three. Or just fun stuff. Respond to this column at shuchi.b@livemint.com

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