Teeth for tat

Prasad Sangameshwaran | Updated on March 13, 2018

The Suarez saga, yet again, reveals that celebrity endorsements are fraught with uncertainty. While brands instantly dump a controversial celebrity, are marketers missing a trick or two?

In a group match against England on June 19, Luis Suarez, Uruguay’s star, exhibited both delicate class and savage power. The two goals that he scored against the English were a death-blow for the team in the group stage of the FIFA World Cup 2014. But in less than a week, the beast in Suarez reared its head. In a closely fought encounter against Italy, Suarez dug his teeth into the shoulders of Italian defender Giorgio Chiellini. The beautiful game had suddenly turned ugly.

Soccer’s governing body FIFA gave Suarez an unprecedented ban on participating in nine international matches and four months of abstinence from any soccer-related activity (including training). Soon brands that had signed on Suarez as their ambassador developed cold feet. Some such as sports goods giant Adidas had valid reasons. In Brazil, posters of the sports brand that featured Suarez letting out a war-cry had taken a new meaning altogether. In less than a week, what was meant to be a source of inspiration had become fodder for social media and soccer fans were taking selfies in front of Suarez posters with his mouth wide open. The brand found itself on the back foot, and replaced posters of the Uruguyan striker with Brazilian right back Dani Alves.

“Brands include good behaviour and negative publicity clauses in their contracts which provide for hasty exits and retreats,” says Suku Murti, Managing Partner, GroupM ESP, the entertainment and sports partnerships consultancy of GroupM, a major network of media agencies.

But for every Adidas there is a Xolo. The smart phone maker that has Suarez shooting hundreds of footballs outside the stadium in its television ad continues to run its commercials, unperturbed by the uproar surrounding the star. Xolo has a brand tie-up with Liverpool, the English club that Suarez plays for. What prompted Xolo to stay put is unclear as company executives were not available to comment.

Sporting behaviour

Do brands that continue with the celebrity when they are going through a rough patch benefit in the long run? Not everyone is convinced. Senior marketers such as Deepika Warrier, Vice-President - Marketing, PepsiCo says: “An endorser’s negative association or action could create buzz, but in the short term and long term negatively impact the equity of the associated brands.” She adds that this is particularly true for sportsmen as sports is the last frontier for mankind, a quest for glory, fair play, conquest over personal weakness, team spirit and fair competition. Unfair play and immature behaviour can only be damaging both for the personal brand of the sportsman (however good he or she may be at the sport) and associated brands.

Sometimes brands give celebrities a second chance. After all, be it in sports or anywhere else in life, there is always a chance for a turnaround. Look at the case of golf star Tiger Woods. When scandal after scandal tumbled out of the golfer’s closet, brands such as Accenture, Gatorade and Gillette dropped him like a hot potato. But some such as Nike persisted and stayed with Woods through his bad patch. When the golfer regained his form and top spot in 2013, it was Nike that stood to benefit the most. “Brands are queuing up to sign up Tiger Woods all over again because he is still the most popular golfer on earth with many likable characteristics and values which brands seek a rub off from,” says Murty.

Closer home there is the example from cinema. While Bollywood star Salman Khan has had more than his share of negative publicity, it has not diluted his brand equity amongst his fan base. Murty points out that there is also a huge positive dimension to his personality thanks to his consistent philanthropic activities such as those undertaken for the Being Human label. This has fortified his brand enough to take a few hard knocks without any resultant erosion.

Another senior marketing professional adds that associating with a controversial celebrity depends on the nature of the brand. For example, while brands that signed on Tiger Woods for his virtues got left out in the cold as his vices like infidelity came to light, brands who signed him for his ability on the sports field did not face the heat. Murty says, “As long as you leverage the innate goodness and positive aspects of a celebrity, brands can ride on the success of that celebrity while insuring themselves against any possible adverse incident involving the celebrity.”

Positive spin

The other reason a brand can stick to a controversial celebrity depends on the way a brand uses him. An endorser’s negative aspects will just not work for a brand unless they are being used in a humorous and creative way. For instance, there are bottle openers in the shape of Suarez teeth that have hit the market after the biting controversy. Maybe a beer brand could have lapped up that opportunity, says the senior marketer.

Finally, with most brands available globally, they can use the controversial celebrity depending on the region. While the biting incident involving Suarez caused a major hue and cry globally about bad sporting behaviour, in his own country, Uruguay, Suarez is still a star, a rags-to-riches story and a devoted family person who dotes on his two children. In fact, the President of the country issued a statement in favour of Suarez and FIFA was painted as the villain. Somewhere, the boot is on the other foot.

Published on July 03, 2014

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