The concept of using brand ambassadors to enhance a company’s products and image just through their very existence is hardly a new one, though its importance has certainly increased as social media channels have given celebrities direct control over what messages they put out to their fans. Movie stars, musicians and YouTubers are all popular brand ambassadors, but few have the same level of impact as sports ambassadors, and the way these are selected by brands is getting ever more focused on data.
Like any aspect of marketing, using brand ambassadors will only be effective if it is part of a strategy and any strategy needs to be backed up by accurate and current data. And really effective brand ambassador strategies, particularly in the world of sports, require data that isn’t just current, but is also predictive. The sporting world is notoriously fickle and has a very short memory, particularly if you are aiming at a younger market, so it’s not a case of knowing who is on top now, but who will be on top next.
One brand well ahead of the curve in this respect is Under Armour, a sportswear brand that has made huge strides into the market since being founded by a 23-year-old in his grandmother’s basement just over two decades ago. The brand has snatched lucrative endorsement deals with big stars like Andy Murray and Michael Phelps away from the traditional sportswear giants, but it’s more interested in identifying the stars of the future than poaching the big names.
This is an approach that requires patience but it can also pay off big time, much the same as putting faith in younger players rather than buying expensive imports can be a lucrative policy for sports teams. Signing endorsement deals with players who haven’t quite hit the big time yet is clearly going to be more cost effective than one with a player like Murray who is already at the peak of his game and earning power. You can get them cheaper and while the price will go up as their star ascends, you’ve shown faith in them and that can go a long way.
Of course, there will always be a ‘you can’t win anything with kids’ fear in the background, and there’s certainly a risk involved as there are many factors that can prevent a talented youngster from reaching their potential. If that happens, money will have been invested in someone whose profile never pays back, and that is where data crunching becomes all-important. In an interview with Marketing Week last year, Under Armour’s Vice President of direct-to-consumer and omnichannel digital Sid Jatia explained how they value this approach.
“We do a tonne of scientific research over how an athlete can perform over the next five to 10 years, there’s a team dedicated to it,” Jatia said. “We then make a judgement call. Tottenham were like sixth when we signed them up, now they are second in the Premier League. Golfer Jordan Spieth was ranked number seven in the world and he’s now the champion. Nike passed on Stephen Curry and went for Kevin Durant as he was the obvious posterboy. We got Curry and now he’s the hottest thing in the NBA.”
Brandtix is a sports performance index platform that analyses the data of what happens on the pitch (taken from Opta stats) and correlates them with data of what happens on social media (Facebook, Twitter and Instagram) to come up with the brand value of sports stars. This helps it (and its clients, more importantly) identify the up-and-coming brand ambassadors of the future based on what they do on and off the pitch.
CEO Jon Rosenblatt explains how picking out ambassadors has changed since his time at EA Sports five years ago: “When I was at EA and we were signing local talent across the territories, it really was about who was scoring the most goals,” says Rosenblatt. “It wasn’t necessarily about the whole social aspect then – it was just, is the player immediately recognisable? Today players like Hector Bellerin or Sergio Ramos have made defending cool again, and there are lots of players now who have that ability to take football away from just being all about Ronaldo and Messi. The right brand can elevate that with the right content and strategy.”
No matter how good the data can be, the strategy is still an essential part of making any of this a success. Also essential is finding an ambassador that matches the core values of the brand, and one who will embody that brand in the way that someone like Usain Bolt does for Puma, which is why he earns $10m a year doing it. He adds to the brand value through everything he says and does, but finding another Usain Bolt requires luck almost as much as it does good data.
Another concern has to be that data alone doesn’t tell the story of a potential brand ambassador’s social media activity. Just because someone has a lot of followers and generates a lot of chatter online, brands need to be able to trust them to be doing so in a responsible and controversy-free manner. However, as long as factors like these are being taken into consideration too, the potential rewards of identifying your brand’s superstars of the future are clear, and the tools to achieve this have never been so readily available.
What do you think are the best ways to identify future brand ambassadors? Who are your tips for the next global sports superstars? Tweet @mporiumgroup or comment below.