For as long as advertising has existed, leading practitioners have highlighted the importance of brand storytelling. Explaining where a brand has come from and why it exists is fundamental in emotionally connecting with a consumer. But what happens when a brand leaves the mood-rooms and storyboards of advertising and enters the world of sponsorship? A world where individual ambassadors carry the responsibility of a brand on their very human shoulders.
Lance Armstrong made one statement in his interview with Oprah Winfrey that epitomises the problem:
“This story was so perfect for so long. And I mean that, as I try to take myself out of the situation and I look at it. You overcome the disease, you win the Tour de France seven times. You have a happy marriage, you have children. I mean, it’s just this mythic perfect story, and it wasn’t true.”
Nike told this story like an advertiser would and they did it extremely well. The problem is, as we now know, they were selling an advertising concept, and one that a single individual couldn’t hope to live up to. Armstrong is not alone. Time and again athletes are put on pedestals which are, in truth, tight-ropes. Global superstars will always slip if they’re sold as something they’re not.
The alternative is to sell the stories of who people truly are. To continue the Nike example, the emergence of Andre Agassi in the ’90s as a Generation X ambassador was an opportunity for Nike to tell a real story about a real person who stood for the very same things Nike did at the time. Interestingly, when Agassi revealed he had taken shockingly illegal drugs during his playing career, there was a surprisingly repressed response from media and fans. People loved Agassi even more for the mistakes he made throughout his career and the person he became because of it. It’s a genuine story, not a marketing concept, and as a result the truth could never ‘come out’.
It’s easy to take two of the most famous sponsorship cases in the last 25 years and pin them at either ends of a spectrum of right and wrong, but there are lessons to be learnt. At Synergy we talk about the importance of ‘Authenticity’ in sponsorship. It is the first step of our Social Era ABCDE model, and this is a key example of why it is so vital.
Consumers have a desperate thirst to discover the often layered centre of their sporting heroes, not just the shining exterior we see in ghost-written autobiographies. Brands that can root their own story to that of an ambassador have much less to lose than those that become attached to a polished veneer.
All of which brings us to Tiger Woods – another Nike athlete with a perfect story that unravelled spectacularly. The major difference between Lance and Tiger being that whilst doping revelations have utterly compromised Armstrong’s performance credibility, it is sporting prowess alone that has brought about Woods’s redemption.
Perhaps this has helped Nike discover the real truth about sporting ambassadors: maybe, for a performance brand like them, the story doesn’t matter at all.
By Matt Readman on April 4th, 2013