As the political climate gets increasingly volatile and polarized, especially in the United States, more and more brands have been using their advertising and marketing platforms to promote social causes as well as their own political and social points-of-views and values. Even athletes nowadays are empowered more than ever to voice out their beliefs and take a stand on issues especially through social media. Pam El, Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) of the National Basketball Association (NBA), Dawn Hudson, CMO, National Football League (NFL), and Steve Stoute, founder and CEO of Translation were joined by panel moderator Alexandra Bruell, Advertising reporter from The Wall Street Journal to discuss ‘How Athletes and Brands can Change the World’.
Indeed, athletes are taking to social and digital media to tell their stories - from political and social views to community causes they support or lead. According to El, the NBA has been encouraging and supporting athletes to find their voices not just on social media, but in marketing spaces as well. NFL’s Hudson attested to the point, saying that more than playing for their teams, athletes wanted to use the league as a platform to get national visibility on their own community efforts and programs. In fact, the NFL has created the ‘My Cause, My Cleats’ platform to provide players a space push their story and their cause. “As opposed to the big brand of the NFL telling them what to do and trying to get 1,800 athletes to all agree on something, this was much better for our fans and for them,” Hudson said.
Stoute owed this behavior among athletes to personal branding. Players have recognised that they have their own values, beliefs, morals — a brand of their own making. This puts (and gives back) some control in the hands of the athlete. In the past, brands have held athletes to their multi-million contracts, forcing them to behave in a certain way or toe the brand line in what they say. “It didn’t make a difference if the team owner felt a certain way, didn’t make a difference if the league itself felt a certain way. They were protecting their brand; they weren’t doing that before,” Stoute emphasised.
El further added, “(athletes) are smart enough to pick brands that represent their values. Athletes choose and stay with brands that are going to be supportive of them and their causes.” Athletes nowadays know there will be no shortage of brands who have the same values they have and who will be willing to work with them should their current endorsements choose to separate with them. In a way, they are forcing brands to take a stand on several issues and to become more authentic with their brand values.
Brands have learned to be more flexible in engaging with endorsement deals with athletes. “If you were going to get a spokesperson or endorser, the one thing had to be that you shared certain values you both uniquely felt the same way about and that’s why that partnership would be believed by the consumer and why it would make sense,” Stoute said. From the get-go, athletes tell brands their perspective and their values. Gone are the days when players get all the blame when brands drop them because of political pressure or consumer backlash over statements they make on controversial issues. Athletes can say they have been up-front with what they stand for and that brands have agreed to support them. “You’re seeing a lot of confidence from the athlete walking in saying this is who I am and if we’re gonna be in business together then this is the perspective that I have,” Stoute added.
On the Kevin Plank - Under Armour - Trump compliment issue
Earlier this year, Under Armour and its CEO, Kevin Plank, went under fire after the executive complimented highly unpopular US President Donald Trump in an interview with CNBC. Plank saw Trump as a “real asset” for the country because of his pro-business stance. Two top athlete Under Armour endorsers, Misty Copeland and Stephen Curry, voiced their disagreement on social media.
Asked on comments on the situation, Stoute replied, “I think it’s important that as a CEO, that you understand the distinction between your personal point of view and what you support, your religious beliefs and those of the company’s, because you represent thousands of employees and thousands of partners. You can’t put those partners in the way of you personal opinion.” He further added that just because brands are paying athletes for endorsement deals that they can necessarily dictate what they are going to say about the brand — especially when brands say or do something against the athletes’ personal values.
Doing good and selling the product
Can brands effectively do good and make the bottomline? “I don’t think you have to pick one or the other. You can actually talk about what you stand for and leave it at that and get the brand credit for that,” answered Stoute. To do good, he gave three points: make great creative work, articulate the point clearly, do it because you mean it. According to Stout, if consumers feel good about the brand and if they are engaged emotionally in it, they will transact with it. People today have many options and those who strike a personal connection with their consumers will most likely get the transactions.
El added, “millennials and Gen Z fans, consumers wanna deal with brands that are doing great things. Your audience wants to know first and foremost that you’re a good company before they wanna know what you’re selling.”
However, Hudson emphasised on the need for brands to provide products and services that deliver the benefits desired by consumers. “Marketers have to both make sure that they’re growing the brand as well as figure out how do they understand their target, deliver a product that’s effective, use promotion to drive sale. It’s not one-stop shopping anymore, and you don’t have to have an affiliation or a point of view or a cause do everything for you,” she said.
Brand-athlete-league relationships in the future
Pam El saw more business-minded and more brand-oriented athletes continuing to get deals with brands and to gain more control over this relationship. Brands who are most authentic will win over others. She also put the fan (as much as the athlete) as getting more control on what brands and players do and will do in the future.
Dawn Hudson believed there will be greater partnerships between players and the NFL so both will have more impact on the fan. Because young athletes coming into the league are getting more savvy over their own personal brands and the use of social media, they have the opportunity and potential to find their own voices and points-of-view.
Steve Stoute predicted more athletes seeing and establishing their personal brands early on and thinking of their career after and beyond playing in the leagues. He also saw more women getting top positions in sports leagues and organisations. For sports to cope with changes in the environment, it needs to have empathy, understanding, and a different point of view.
The changing dynamics between brands, athletes, and leagues today were brought about by the rise of social media and its capacity to let people voice their values and beliefs. As brands themselves, athletes have been pushing for more control over their partnerships with brands. Players hold companies to shared brand values, and will call them out when they go against what they are supposed to stand for. In the end, fans and consumers stand to benefit most from more authentic brand experiences and relationships as well as more great work for social good.