As cycle-sport fans we’ve been gripped in recent weeks by the coverage of the USADA’s report on Lance Armstrong. The seven-times Tour de France ‘champ’ has not only been stripped of his titles but has also seen a mass exodus of sponsorship and endorsement deals – most notably main sponsor Nike. Given the enormous profile of his case and the magnitude of Armstrong’s alleged misdemeanours these developments are entirely understandable, but it did get us thinking about how brands react when their sponsored personalities are caught at the heart of scandal.
Tiger Woods’s wholesome image unravelled in a matter of days after a mysterious minor car accident at his Florida home back in 2009 led to a landslide of kiss-and-tell stories. The world’s best golfer was quickly dropped by drinks manufacturer Gatorade and later on by global consultancy Accenture. In the face of all of this Nike maintained their endorsement deal with Woods – standing firmly behind their man in line with their policy that athletics matters come before all else.
Michael Phelps was at the centre of a furore in 2009 after a picture of him using a water-pipe to take marijuana was released in the press. Kellogg’s, one of the brands with which Phelps had an endorsement deal was quick to distance itself from the swimming superstar. Having apologised in a timely and appropriate fashion, however, Phelps was able to come through the scandal with his public profile suffering relatively little damage. Kellogg’s decision to drop Phelps was seen as an over-reaction and was mocked on Saturday Night Live: it was actually the brands that didn’t react to Phelps’ indiscretion in a knee-jerk way that came out on top.
From sport to the world of fashion, Kate Moss is another extremely high-profile figure who was at the heart of a scandal and paid the price – at least temporarily – for her misdemeanours. In 2005 pictures of Moss taking drugs found their way to the tabloids, and H&M, Chanel and Burberry all quickly ended their relationships with the model. For others this might have spelled the end of a career but not for Ms Moss – a public break-up with Pete Doherty and a stint in rehab later and the model was soon re-signed to a new Burberry campaign, reportedly for even more money than before. It seems – in fashion at least – there really is no such thing as bad publicity.
Michael Vick has the dubious honour of being the first athlete to be re-signed to an endorsement contract that had been previously dropped from. An NFL quarterback, Vick was dropped by Nike sports when convicted for running a dog-fighting ring. He served 21 months in prison before returning to professional sport. By 2010 Vick had a new team and was playing well, and his contract with Nike was renewed. The quarterback’s story seems to show that sporting brands (and by association consumers) can be remarkably forgetful for as long as their athlete is performing.
The theme of consistent performance runs through all of the examples above. Nike stuck with Tiger because they believed he would return to the top of his sport, and waited out Michael Vick’s jail term before welcoming him back into the fold when he took the Philadelphia Eagles to the play-offs; Kellogg’s ended up looking foolish when they dropped a marquee athlete for a relatively minor offence and Burberry were all too happy to cash back in on Kate Moss’s boosted profile. Given that he can no longer compete (either in cycling events or triathlons) the decision to drop Armstrong is a no-brainer for Nike: there is nothing to balance the potentially negative effects of their continued association.