Novak Djokovic is the No. 1 ranked male professional tennis player globally, the kind of athlete that many brands would be thrilled to have as their spokesperson - until the recent Australian Open. Djokovic wasn't allowed to play in the event based on vaccination status. The episode involved an intense legal battle and some less- than-positive press for Djokovic.1,2 The controversy about vaccination status and the ability to play in tournaments continues as things now transition to the upcoming French Open. For Djokovic's sponsors like Hublot, Head, ASICS and Lacoste, it's a brand management moment of truth and a teaching moment for any brand that leverages celebrity endorsers.
Celebrity athletes and brands have a long history. The relationship between athlete and brand has evolved from 1905 when baseball star Honus Wagner engraved his name on Louisville Slugger bats, to today where we have star athletes like the omnipresent "Shaq" promoting everything from pain cream to car insurance. Sometimes brand/athlete relationships become truly iconic. Think Mean Joe Greene and Coke, or most iconically Michael Jordan and Nike. Most successful brand/athlete relationships don't achieve iconic status but can still be high-impact and mutually beneficial. Like most business relationships, there's a natural, normal evolution as brands shift focus, athletes become more or less relevant, and the value and impact of the relationships are evaluated over time.
Hitching your brand wagon to a celebrity can be risky.
Humans are human, and it's inevitable that at some point, celebrity and star athletes will misstep. The brand damage can range from minor to catastrophic. In October 2012, Lance Armstrong lost eight significant sponsors in a single day after the news of his doping and related cover-ups reached an inflection point. In contrast, Aaron Rodgers is still hanging out with Jake from State Farm even after his recent vaccine controversy. Every situation is unique.
In a controversial celebrity endorser situation, brands need to consider their options:
The nuclear option - In some cases, the brand damage is so dramatic and irreparable the best choice is to quickly and publicly part ways with the celebrity. Given the severity of this solution and the drama of the circumstances that would drive such a decision, it's crucial that brands are clear and decisive when going down this path. There can be residual brand affiliation issues depending on the length and magnitude of the relationship. Successful, long-running brand athlete partners don't just disappear in the minds of consumers after a press release terminating a contract. There can also be complexity in unraveling relationships. In the case of Djokavic, Lacoste has an entire product line built around him, which could prove challenging to transition if they went their separate ways. The nuclear option is almost always messy and painful for everyone involved.
Work it out - Often snafus are temporary or episodic. Star athletes frequently make insensitive comments, do stupid things on social media, fight with other athletes or carelessly snub or misrepresent sponsors. Depending on the brand and specific circumstances, these can be managed as one-off situations. Many athletes and brands have successfully weathered that type of storm. Profuse apologies, temporarily dialing down media visibility, shifts in messaging can work together to get through a tricky situation. When a lot has been invested in creating and cultivating a solid brand/athlete partnership, it can be worth the effort for a brand and athlete to work together to get through minor bumps.
Double down - Some brands have leaned hard into the controversial actions of their sponsored athletes. Nike famously not only supported Colin Kaepernick but invested in an effective, widely admired campaign after the national anthem kneeling controversy. Athleta and Visa embraced and actively promoted Simone Biles after she withdrew from Olympic competition for mental health reasons. In both cases, brands and athletes emerged from the controversies better off and working well together.
Djokovic's sponsors will have decisions to make in the coming days and weeks. Those brands will need to gut check their values and evaluate how any decisions will resonate with the audiences they are targeting. For those sponsors, and anyone currently targeting an affluent audience, findings from recent Gartner research worth considering:
Affluent consumers are highly concerned about COVID-19 and are more likely to embrace vaccination, and yet they are much more likely than other income groups to change purchase behavior when brands act concerning social and political issues. Affluent consumers have options and are more than willing to shift purchase behavior to brands that reflect their values.
Affluent consumers expect brands to lead (take decisive action) on cultural/societal issues. Brands pursuing these consumers may open themselves to reputational risk with half measures or compromises.
Affluent consumers are more likely to be fully vaccinated than consumers from other income groups. 80% of affluent consumers say they are fully vaccinated.4
In our current polarized cultural landscape, every brand leveraging celebrity athletes or endorsers is likely to encounter some form of controversy. There are no out-of-the-box answers; every situation requires evaluating the severity of the problem, the alignment to brand values and a holistic view of the celebrity relationship. In the case of Novak Djokovic, it's still unclear if there is any path for him to play in the upcoming French Open, creating additional challenges for his sponsors.
If your brand uses star athletes or celebrity endorsers, consider how you might handle a similar situation.