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How Brands React to an Injured Athlete

How Brands React to an Injured Athlete

The potential for injury is a constant risk to all athletes; at any moment during a practice or a game an athlete can injure themselves and subsequently miss future games. While an injury to a star athlete can hinder a team, it can also hurt a sponsor who has invested heavily into the athlete. While performance is just one motivating factor for corporate sponsors choosing to invest in an athlete endorsement deal, it is a highly relevant consideration. Being kept on the sidelines can have a negative impact on both an athlete’s exposure and credibility as an elite athlete. More simply, if a sponsored athlete is not active in their sport, it reduces the value they provide to the sponsor. Sophisticated sponsors manage against this risk by negotiating termination clauses in the event of a long-term injury. However, depending on the length of the existing relationship and the severity of the injury termination may not be the preferred alternative.

Some brands have been able to turn what may typically be a negative situation into a strategic activation by using an injury to a sponsored athlete as a way to tell a new and differentiated story. Done well, activating around the theme of injury and recovery can provide the following benefits to a corporate sponsor:

• Showcase Functional Benefits of Products: By telling a story of injury and recovery, brands are able to showcase the functional benefit of their products.

• Build Equity in Key Attributes: Leverage the sponsorship to build an emotive connection or position the brand as essential in helping a consumer solve a problem or overcome an obstacle

• Humanize Celebrity Talent: Athletes are typically activated in an aspirational fashion, with brands focusing on elite abilities. Profiling an injured athlete can humanize the endorser and render them more relatable to consumers. 

There have been a variety of times that athletes have had to sit out due to injury, but the marketing behind the athlete continues. This week, MKTG will examine multiple instances where a brand demonstrated a unique approach to leveraging their sponsorship of an injured athlete: 

Derrick Rose (Basketball), Adidas- In 2012 NBA point guard Derrick Rose was coming off an MVP season and was looking to lead the Chicago Bulls to an NBA championship. Adidas targeted the point guard and signed Derrick Rose to a 13-year $185 million contract, which at the time was the most lucrative endorsement deal in basketball. In game one of that year’s playoffs, Rose tore his ACL and was out for the remainder of the Playoffs and the entire 2012-2013 NBA season. In a matter of months, Adidas’s $185 million investment hit a major roadblock. Adidas then used the opportunity to release a series of YouTube videos giving behind the scenes access to Derrick Rose’s rehab program. The 6 video series entitled “#TheReturn” gave Adidas a chance to still feature Rose in their marketing while adding to the buzz once he returned to action. It also gave Adidas an opportunity to show commitment to their athlete, remaining with Derrick Rose though his injury. This demonstrates to potential player endorsers that Adidas is a brand that will support their athletes.

Heidi Kloser (Skiing), Liberty Mutual- Insurance brand Liberty Mutual is a sponsor of the US Olympic Committee and created a memorable ad during the 2014 Sochi Olympics featuring American skier Heidi Kloser. In 2014, Kloser was completing her final practice runs the day before the opening ceremonies of the Sochi Olympics. During one of her practice runs she took a hard fall and fractured her leg and tore multiple ligaments. Liberty Mutual did not have an existing relationship with Kloser but saw how her story resonated with the American public. The company quickly filmed an ad with Kloser highlighting her determination to recover and compete in the next Olympics. Liberty Mutual tied the determination Kloser showed in rehabbing her injury to the brand promise of insurance companies: bouncing back and demonstrating resiliency during difficult times.

Jabari Parker (Basketball), Gatorade- During the 2014 NBA Draft the Milwaukee Bucks selected Jabari Parker with the second pick. Only 2 months into his rookie season, Parker suffered a season ending injury when he tore his ACL. After a few months into Parker’s recovery, Gatorade released a spot featuring Parker working to rehabilitate his knee. Gatorade used this ad to promote their Gatorade Recover products which are marketed for “Athlete Building”. Gatorade was able to use one of their injured assets to naturally promote a product meant for recovery. When Parker returns to the NBA, Gatorade has already highlighted how their product helped him return and will be able to partially take credit for that story.

Risks and Considerations

Activating with an injured athlete can be a strategic way to yield some value out of an investment in an injured athlete. However, there are a few things a brand should consider before activating in this territory. Some key considerations include:   

Sponsors Shouldn’t Play Doctor- When Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III underwent surgery after his rookie season to repair his LCL and ACL there were many questions on whether he would be ready for the start of the next season. Adidas, who sponsored Griffin, then released a campaign with the tagline “All in for Week 1” proclaiming that he would be ready for the start of the new season. Griffin played in the first week of the new season despite doctors claiming that he was still in recovery mode. Griffin saw a major drop in play that season, with many people blaming the Adidas campaign. Adidas put unnecessary pressure on Griffin to return for Week 1. Sponsors should not play doctor during these campaigns and speculate around return dates.

Potential Overuse of the Same Story- The story of the injured athlete recovering has been told multiple times in recent years. In addition to the campaigns highlighted above, Nike has produced similar campaigns with injured athletes like Kobe Bryant and Paul George. The story may get to a point of oversaturation where the story no longer resonates with the viewer.

Categories to Watch:

Some brands will lend themselves to a more natural fit when promoting an injured athlete.

Nobody can anticipate when an athlete will face an injury; it is a constant risk that they must be prepared for. Brands must also be prepared when one of their sponsored athletes misses playing time and respond in a way that that is relevant to their values, target market and sponsorships strategy.  

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