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The Michael Phelps Endorsement Factor


The Michael Phelps Endorsement Factor

Open the big book of celebrity endorsement scandals, it’s time to make another entry. Swimming star Michael Phelps was just having a bit of fun last November while visiting his girlfriend at the University of South Carolina when, along with all the shots and beer he consumed at a house party that weekend, he also had a toke on a bong that was being freely passed around.

Phelps had probably forgotten all about this weekend until the photo of his bong hit appeared on the cover of the News of the World last weekend.

The reaction was immediate. USA Swimming banned Phelps from competition for three months and the media reported that his lucrative sponsorship deals would almost certainly dry up.

That prediction came true as Kellogg announced it would not renew its tie-up with the star. The reaction of Kevin Adler, founder of Chicago sports marketing firm Engage Marketing, was typical of the expert commentators. ‘Athletes are brands. If you do something that runs contrary to your brand image, it will affect your ability to monetize that brand image. It really is that simple,’ he concluded.

No, it really is not that simple. For starters, Phelps is not a brand. He is an athlete who, through association with brands, can confer meaning. People, no matter how famous, are not brands. Yes, they have symbolic meaning, but so do road signs and mythological gods, and no one is confusing them with brands.

It would also be a mistake to assume that Phelps’ actions will damage his reputation.

Outside of the pool, he is just an average 23-year-old kid from Baltimore. One of the joys of his victories in Beijing was the laid-back and normal manner in which he handled himself. I spent many of my formative years at US universities, and bongs were pretty much the norm at every party. Smoking a bong at a college party confirms, rather than contradicts, Phelps’ everyday image.

If we know anything about celebrities, it is that they often go off the rails only to reemerge after a period of reflection, bigger and more endorsable than ever. It was only a year ago that Britney Spears was committed to a psychiatric hospital, but her latest video, for the song Circus, shows her decked in Bulgari jewellery as part of a multimillion-dollar endorsement.

Celebrities screw up, but the effects are usually temporary. Indeed, in many cases, screw-ups and the recovery that follow may well increase the attractiveness of the celebrity for future endorsement by adding notoriety and a fighting spirit to their allure.

Phelps is a case in point. What none of the media reported last week was that after he won six gold medals in Athens in 2004 he went home and was charged with drunk driving – a far more serious crime than pot-smoking. The scandal did not harm his appeal four years later in Beijing, and this latest minor infraction is equally unlikely to have much long-term impact.

In truth, even the short-term implications of Phelps’ actions are not materializing. Aside from Kellogg, his major sponsors such as Hilton, Omega and Subway are standing by their man. In any case, Kellogg’s condemnation is hardly a major blow. It had a six-month contract with the star that was coming to an end. Severing its endorsement a few days early in such a public manner was simply a smart (and, arguably, cynical) way of generating positive PR.

So let’s close the book on Phelps. He can get back in the pool and we will see him next in London – covered in gold medals and in a sea of sponsorships.

This thought piece is featured courtesy of Marketing Week, the United Kingdom’s leading marketing publication.

The Blake Project can help you discover the right celebrity endorsement for your brand based on emotional connection measurement. Further, we work with all of Hollywood’s A list celebrities and can strategize and facilitate your celebrity endorsement.

Branding Strategy Insider is a service of The Blake Project: A strategic brand consultancy specializing in Brand Research, Brand Strategy, Brand Licensing and Brand Education

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Petra on February 11th, 2009 said

Can you really claim that people are not brands? Is it really that simple? Don’t people have intangible and tangible values that differentiate them from others, just like services or products do? I would certainly not say that Michael Phelps could confer meaning only through associations with brands, but rather through his athletic achievements and personal conduct. Not so long ago another branding expert said that everything could be branded. The branding expert was Brad VanAuken, here on BSI. It would be quite interesting to hear his thoughts on the subject 🙂

Mark Ritson on February 11th, 2009 said

It’s a common error to assume that people, countries and cities are all brands. Yes, they all possess symbolic meaning but as I point out in my post so do road signs. The point is that brands are more than just a cluster of meanings. On the consumer side you have to be able to purchase them and own them, on the organisational side you have to be able to control and alter them if you so choose. Neither applies to people like Michael Phelps.

Do you own him when you buy a box of cereal with is name on it? Could we reposition Phelp’s personality and talents if we decided a strategic review was needed – perhaps into an intense soccer player?

Put it another way. We have an extensive academic body of work on celebrity endorsement in the Journal of Consumer Research for example, starting with the superb work of Grant McCracken. We also have an extensive and empirically verified series of papers on Co-Branding published in journals like the Journal of Brand Management. Even a cursory look at these two literatures confirm that the relationship between two brands, and between a celebrity and a brand, are entirely different. If we were to accept the premise of celebrities as brands we would have to unite these two disparate literatures somehow.

There is a final and most important rationale for rejecting people as brands. To do so would be to commit what Marx called “the commodification of self”. When we turn people into brands their humanity is lost. Yes we use people to sell brands, but when we start to use the literature on brands to sell people we forget the essential humanity that sets apart people from things.

This terrible literature that teaches people to market themselves or brand themselves asks people to become products, and in doing so, asks them to forget the things that makes human beings very different from baked beans.

I am all for brands, I spend my life working on them, but it is a fundamental and very common mistake to assume we can apply our knowledge to the sociology and psychology of the human condition. For both theoretical, practical and philosophical reasons it makes no sense.

Brad VanAuken on February 12th, 2009 said


You’re right, I’ve stated this repeatedly. In this case Mark and I have a difference of opinion.

Brands are the source of promises to consumers. They promise relevant differentiated benefits. They can make these promises because they are the personifications of products, services, organizations or other entities. Brands have personalities, they possess character and they can stand for something. I have long contended that not only can companies and their products and services be branded, but so also can colleges and universities and museums and other not-for-profit organizations and municipalities and countries and musical groups and yes, even individuals.

While most people do not need to be personified, some arguably do. Indeed, many celebrities are packaged as brands. The trick is to draw out a person’s authentic brand, one that is true to him or her. The same is true with all other brands. And authenticity usually reveals a combination of positive and not so positive attributes. The role of the brand marketer is to accentuate the positive attributes, especially those that will give the brand an advantage in the marketplace.

Some celebrities recover nicely from a crisis situation and some do not, just as some companies do and some don’t. For some celebrities, a brush with the law or the demonstration of particularly lewd behavior is not a crisis at all. It is a PR opportunity. Yes, depending on the intended personality, all publicity can be good publicity.

Regarding using celebrities to endorse products or to be spokespeople for them can often be problematic. Remember Anita Bryant and Sunkist or O.J. Simpson and Hertz as Mark mentioned above. While I think Tiger Woods is a perfect endorsement for Nike (the “authentic athletic performer” [Nike’s brand essence] just doing it [Nike’s tagline]), that relationship could still be problematic depending upon how Tiger Woods conducts himself in public and private.

Branding is the process of managing identity and perception. This can be done for anything.

Brad VanAuken on February 12th, 2009 said

Mark –

I agree with you that the “commoditization of self” is a bad idea. That is why I focus on self-reflection and self-discovery (the examined life) as a key component of personal branding. Rather than simplifying or labeling the self, I try to identify the core qualities of the self and focus on those qualities that will best help the individual achieve his or her intended ends. I understand that few personal branding coaches may approach personal branding in this way.


Petra on February 13th, 2009 said

Although I am a huge fan of your writing Mark, I would have to say that this time you haven’t quite convinced me. I do not think that what defines the brand is the possibility of owning it, but rather the differentiating values that it embodies. And although Phelps can not be repositioned into an intense soccer player, he can well be repositioned into an immoral punk. At this moment, Brad’s arguments seem well argued and sound more convincing to me. Especially when people focus on using their qualities in order to improve themselves rather than just trying to improve their cash accounts. Anyway, thank you both for making this an interesting debate.

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