Tiger Woods took the sports world by storm with his unexpected victory at the 2019 Masters Tournament. His spectacular performance not only rallied fans around the world, but also served as a shining moment for his faithful sponsor, Nike.
The relationship between the legendary golfer and the American sports megabrand dates back to 1996, the early stages of Tiger’s professional career. Nike's decision to remain loyal to the athlete during his well-documented personal, professional and legal struggles has divided onlookers over the years.
This successful collaboration teaches us three important lessons about developing a successful long-term relationship with an ambassador.
1. Know when your ambassador has become a liability
There are many good reasons to work with a high-profile ambassador, given their track record of increasing brand awareness; defining a brand image; and, ultimately, driving product sales.
However, any ambassador relationship has an inherent level of risk. Even the most talented and successful individuals experience personal and professional peaks and valleys. Nike regularly takes calculated risks with its ambassadors, because the sheer strength of its brand puts the company in a class of its own. Nike has the history, scale and credibility to partner with polarizing and controversial athletes who make headlines for reasons that go beyond what happens on the playing field. Names like Colin Kaepernick and Kobe Bryant come quickly to mind, as both are examples of athletes who continued to benefit from the unwavering support of Nike through controversial times.
It was no different for Woods, who remained in Nike’s good graces even during his darkest moments, including a high-profile arrest for impaired driving, and despite the fact that his performance on the golf course dipped to once-unimaginable lows during his many back injuries.
During this period, it would be safe to assume that Nike carefully evaluated its options and chose to stick with Woods, even when other sponsors fled. We can also assume that, given the depth of their relationship with the athlete, Nike believed that he could one day rise again. Which he did, brilliantly. The company was richly rewarded for its loyalty after his Masters victory, including an estimated $22 million (US) boost to the value of its partnership.
2. Do your homework, and know your level of risk
Before hiring an ambassador, it is extremely important to take the time to understand who you’re working with. Considering the large sums of money invested in these partnerships, and their impact on brand image, it is essential to identify all potential risks, and your corresponding level of tolerance.
Take the example of Michael Phelps, the legendary American swimmer who dominated his sport starting with the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens. A few months after winning eight gold medals in Beijing in 2008, Phelps, already notorious for his sometimes difficult temperament and his penchant for partying, was photographed smoking marijuana. To no one’s surprise, certain sponsors, notably the family-friendly Kellogg's brand, chose to distance themselves from the athlete.
On the other hand, Speedo and Omega both stuck by Phelps, a decision that no doubt paid off when he collected no fewer than nine gold medals at the 2009 and 2011 world championships, adding four more at the 2012 London Olympics.
Why did some sponsors abandon Phelps, while others stayed by his side? Because the risks created by Phelps’ behaviour were different for each sponsor, given their varied consumers and business objectives.
3. Appreciate the importance of loyalty and long-term vision
Every athlete will experience ups and downs during their career: that’s the very nature of sport. The most effective ambassadors are those who deliver value in both the good and bad times.
The strength of Nike’s brand gives the company license to invest in long-term partnerships that can withstand any short-term challenges in an athlete’s career. In other words, Nike is so powerful that it transcends sport.
This is not the case, however, for most companies. A controversial ambassador can cause irreparable damage to their brand.
That being said, as consumers become increasingly skeptical, there is a growing place for human stories of success and failure, in which ambassadors are transparent about their challenges. Millennials are among the audiences for whom perfection is unrealistic.
At NATIONAL, our philosophy is that consumers increasingly prefer ambassadors to whom they can relate, with human stories that are relevant and compelling.
——— Kristin Gable is a former Vice-President and Sector Lead, Retail at NATIONAL Public Relations