• Transform magazine
  • February 23, 2020


Drawing out the bad blood


Damning evidence of drug use in sports can be the death knell for a once-lucrative relationship. Brittany Golob examines the importance of aligning brand values through partnerships and sponsorships

At the height of his reign as the king of international cycling, Lance Armstrong was the chairman of the Livestrong foundation, winner of seven Tour de France titles and the pioneer behind a collaborative working model for cycling sponsors. That was all true until October 2012 when he was stripped of all his laurels by the International Cycling Union. In January 2013, Armstrong admitted to a history with performance-enhancing drugs in an interview with Oprah Winfrey. By 28 May, Nike had pulled its substantial sponsorship of Armstrong, though it maintained ties to Livestrong. Other sponsors Trek and Anheuser-Busch followed suit. The United States Postal Service (USPS) is currently engaged in a lawsuit against Armstrong for fraud.

The tragic tale of Lance Armstrong is not unique to cycling. Such greats as baseball’s home run giant Barry Bonds, sprinter Marion Jones, Irish racehorse Waterford Crystal and scores of others have had Olympic medals revoked, been banned from professional sports leagues around the world and have suffered from media or legal inquiries into their lives. Others, like Tiger Woods – whose messy home life forced a number of sponsors to drop him – and Michael Phelps – who saw his Kellogg’s sponsorship revoked in February 2009 when a picture emerged of the famous swimmer smoking marijuana – have seen bad blood infect their formerly healthy sponsorships. Other sponsors kept Phelps on, but Kellogg’s said, “Michael’s most recent behaviour is not consistent with the image of Kellogg.”

The termination of a relationship between a brand and a brand ambassador can be preceded by a number of crises, but in sports, doping is among the most common causes. When superhuman athletes are implicated of involvement in doping or when the evidence has been drawn and comes back positive, ambassadorial relationships are not thicker than blood.

Yet, brand ambassadors have been used throughout the 20th and 21st centuries as a means of bringing additional value, awareness and interest to a brand or product. They are often an invaluable asset to brands in sports, luxury retail, food and drink or other sectors.

Professor of media management and communications at New York’s Fordham University, John A. Fortunato says in his book ‘Sports Sponsorship: Principles and Practices,’ that sponsorship offers an opportunity for an organisation to change the way it is perceived. Sponsorship is also pursued to firmly tie an existing positive perception to the brand’s values.

For Wheaties, a breakfast cereal owned by General Mills, sport sponsorship has been a way of life from the beginning. Founded in 1922, by 1927 the brand was involved in baseball sponsorship and by 1930, its signature tagline, ‘The breakfast of champions,’ emerged.

Now, one of the highest honours an athlete can achieve outside of competition is pride of place on a Wheaties box – joining the likes of Jesse Owens, Michael Jordan, Babe Ruth and Muhammad Ali. Athletes are chosen to reinforce Wheaties’ brand positioning as a benefit to athletes and to muscle performance. “Wheaties chooses partners who represent a champion. They may be a champion in their sport or field, act with boldness and courage, or set high standards for themselves and others,” Jenna Lynch, associate marketing manager for Wheaties, says. The current members of Team Wheaties include an array of swimmers, blade runners, rock climbers, snowboarders and others who achieve athletic greatness.


Jo Davies is CEO of London-based creative agency ZAK, which worked with New Balance Lifestyle to find cultural influencers aligned with the brands values. She says, “As a brand, the ambassadors that you choose must intrinsically fit the brand and the product. For us, the partnership must be authentic and have a story that fits with that of the ambassador. It needs to be believable to its followers. People see right through a link-up that just looks like a brand has thrown money at an influencer with no consideration of the purpose.”

Lynch also points out the value of ambassadors to the brand, “Our partners work with us in many ways – athletes represent and spread our brand, and help us tell their story and Wheaties role in their lives. Some of our brand partnerships revolve around sampling our product, or helping us tell the story of Wheaties and its rich history.”

In sports, sub-brands or product lines are common and tie the brand ambassador strongly to the parent company. In fashion, individual products can become closely linked to high-profile personalities. The association may not be formally defined, either. Carrie Bradshaw, the beguiling lead character in Sex and the City, became closely linked with Manolo Blahnik shoes throughout the series.

However, these associations can backfire, too. Jared Fogle became a spokesperson for Subway when his ‘Subway diet’ helped him lose a significant amount of weight. First appearing in advertisements and then on other Subway assets, he became the face of the brand. When he was incarcerated for child pornography last year, Subway severed ties with Fogle. Though already on a bit of a downward bent, the brand fell by six points between the first and third quarters last year, according to the Reputation Institute. The institute said Subway, which had aligned its health narrative closely to Fogle, didn’t change its narrative in the aftermath of the crisis, causing a downturn in reputation.

Similarly, Woods’ association with Nike’s golf sub-brand led to a 7.5% drop in sales of Tiger Woods branded clothes in 2009 when golf apparel as a sub- sector rose by 11%, according to Fortunado. His personal issues also caused sponsor Gatorade to drop its Tiger Woods Focus branded drink.

The issue of performance-enhancing drugs is fraught with complexity, but considering it solely through the lens of brand associations, sponsors are quick to distance themselves from implicated athletes. Davies says that ideally, “Brand ambassadors can be a powerful tool for any campaign, provided they are carefully considered to propel the values of the brand.” But when ambassadors no longer uphold the brand’s values, as in the case of Armstrong, associations may be broken. Nike’s statement on 17 October 2012 read, “Due to the seemingly insurmountable evidence that Lance Armstrong participated in doping and misled Nike for more than a decade, it is with great sadness that we have terminated our contract with him. Nike does not condone the use of illegal performance enhancing drugs in any manner.” It then reiterated this in January 2013, “Nike does not condone the use of illegal performance enhancing drugs in any manner. We love sport and believe in the integrity of competition.”

Barry Bonds, the record holder for career home runs in Major League Baseball, was, throughout most of his career, unsponsored. This was due to ongoing allegations of, and then investigations into, his use of steroids. The AP pointed out in 2007 that steroid use, even implied steroid use, was enough for companies to keep their distance from tainted athletes.

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Matthew Guarante, head of coaching at communications consultancy Bladonmore, says, “When a brand ambassador perfectly represents the values a brand espouses, things are great. The huge bulk of our work as advisors in this area is to make sure the values are seamlessly communicated between brand and representative. If there is a disjoint, then you’ve got a problem. And it’s rare that the disjoint is flexible.”

Brand associations and sponsorships of organisations, not just individuals, can provoke a similar reaction. Adidas, which sponsors a number of organisations including the National Hockey League, the FIFA World Cup and a number of universities – recently backed out of its a sponsorship of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) due to reports of doping in Russia that implicated the IAAF.

Adidas’ statement on the issue is, “As you know, Adidas has a clear anti-doping policy in place. Therefore, we are in close contact with the IAAF to learn more about their reform process.” The sports brand refused to comment further.

The distinction then, for sporting brand ambassadors may be that associations are no longer acceptable when the sponsored athlete has cheated in competition in some way, rather than had scandals emerge in their personal life. For this reason, many sponsorship agreements include a morals clause.

The challenge for brands is to mitigate the risks presented in these situations. Media and social media training of brand ambassadors is one way to achieve this. Guarante says, “Brands live longer than their ambassadors – you can’t allow those representing your values to do the opposite of what they were hired to do. Our job, advising and coaching people inside brands, is to ensure the values remain in the consumer’s mind while the association with the problem does not.”

This can help the brand proactively protect its reputation when dealing with brand ambassadors. Social media – which has its own risks involved – is an important means of maintaining the brand ambassador’s reputation.

Donna Amey, head of Social Pictures, an agency that represents influencers on social media, says a brand should ensure minimal risk from the outset on social media, “I used to commission this type of work. When we would be looking for a brand ambassador, brands would go back so far to check that there’s nothing that’s going to come up.”

She adds that not all questionable posts can be damaging to the brand, but ambassadors should limit risk by talking only about the area in which they are an expert, “Stupidity can be forgiven. But when it’s something that’s genuinely a huge error in judgement, that’s when it’s damaging. The advice I would give to anyone is stick to your specialties.”

Davies adds that a brand’s reputation can be enhanced by brand ambassadors. In other sectors, particularly luxury, brand ambassadors can help with brand awareness and desirability – the holy grail for luxury marketers. She says, “Ambassador partnerships must be deemed as collaboration so you get the best out of the relationship. You need to enable the ambassador to open up and help you make it work for them, not the other way round. The partnership needs to be believable and look to breed longevity through trust, so that the new audience believes in this partnership too.” After her work with online influencers and New Balance, Davies says ambassadors connect brands with the right audiences and can be important brand assets.

Success in one’s field – whether that’s sports or music or entertainment – is a great achievement. Those achievements can be complemented and perhaps even enhanced through partnerships with brands and through mutually beneficial brand associations. Ensuring the values align and preventing long-term damage to the brand, though, is an important aspect of maintaining relationships with brand ambassadors. Beware of bad blood.