What If Troy Polamalu Cut His Hair?
There is only one thing that 7-time NFL All-Star and 2-time Super Bowl champion Troy Polamalu of the Pittsburgh Steelers is known for as much as his tenacity on the football field; his iconic hair.
For Polamalu, who hasn’t received a haircut since 2000 while he was playing college football at USC, his 32-inch haircut has become an integral part of his brand. He has even leveraged his famous hair into an endorsement deal with Proctor & Gamble product Head and Shoulders and has become the face of the brand’s increasingly large athlete roster and sports marketing strategy.
So when Polamalu offered to cut off his hair to help raise money and awareness for the Veteran of Foreign Wars in their Veterans Day “Mane Event”, it caught the attention of the sports world. Polamalu’s selflessness is unquestionable and is to be applauded; however, it also presents a fascinating case study in sponsorship marketing and raises the debate on how brands should prepare for the unexpected (both good and bad) when aligning with a property.
Polamalu passes the test to be a brand pitchman with flying colors (on-field success, charisma, strong character). However, in this particular partnership with Head and Shoulders, the brand fit seemed to be predicated on his hair. Whether or not the alignment with a short-haired Polamalu would be as authentic was a question undoubtedly asked by brand marketers at P&G. Nevertheless, Troy’s actions created what could have a been a real opportunity for the brand.
So often the marketing community debates how brands should respond to the moral lapses of the athletes that promote their products. Unique to this situation was the fact that Polamalu’s “unexpected actions” were precisely the opposite – a moral achievement which represented the very reasons that Polamalu is a trusted endorser in the first place. Polamalu did not take steroids or have a transgression in his personal life. Had P&G rallied around Polamalu, they may have been able to leverage his actions into a successful promotion (ie: co-branded bottle with charity, corporate donation, etc.) that could’ve both increased Polamalu’s promoter power and allowed them to make a real difference to a meaningful cause.
While Polamalu has since backpedaled and said that the haircut will be a “small trim” and more “ceremonial” in nature, the lesson for brands is twofold: when partnering with a property, always have a plan B, C, and D for every possible outcome. Secondly, understand why you are sponsoring a property in the first place. It is as much about values and telling a story to the consumer as it is about physical attributes (like hair) that can change in an instant. Hair grows back; the opportunity to create an innovative and engaging campaign may not.