When Sponsorship Gets Hairy, From Beards to Unibrows
There are many athletes who are famous for not only their playing ability, but for a defining and signature look. For athletes, those signature looks are often related to iconic hair or facial hair. Bobby Hull was nicknamed the “The Golden Jet” after his flowing, blonde hair. Former Calgary Flame Lanny McDonald was known just as much for his bushy mustache as his play on the ice. These defining hair choices allow athletes to stand out and achieve high levels of recognition amongst fans. In sports, it is common for an athlete to be obstructed by a mask or helmet, making it hard to distinguish one player from the next on TV or from the bleachers. A distinct hair choice of any style, can allow athletes to stand out amongst their peers.
While increased recognition from a signature hairstyle is not the most important attribute a brand looks for in an athlete endorser - it can provide value. After brands ensure the potential fit of an athlete endorser on standard criteria (elite performance, media savvy, social media reach, maturity and morality risk, etc.), a unique and signature look an lead to more recognition for the athlete and a differentiated activation narrative, in turn, providing value to a corporate sponsor. MKTG examines male athletes with distinct hairstyles, facial hair, and more - and how sponsors have featured these iconic hairstyles in brand activations.
Former football player Troy Polamalu was a strong safety for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Polamalu became instantly recognizable to fans in part due to his long black hair that came out from under his helmet. His famous hair led to an endorsement deal with shampoo brand Head & Shoulders, becoming the face of the brand.
With Polamalu now retired, Head & Shoulders continued their tradition of endorsing football players with unique hair and signed New York Giants Wide Receiver Odell Beckham Jr. Head & Shoulders has released a new spot announcing Beckham as the new spokesperson using the tagline “Shoulders are made for greatness, not dandruff” creating a strong association between the elite athlete and the product. The new spot is a noticeable shift to a more serious narrative from their lighter more comedic commercials Polamalu starred in. Head & Shoulders also maintains a variety of sponsorships investing in multiple athletes in football, baseball and hockey as well as securing league deals with the NFL and MLB. Beckham’s bright blonde hair may not be as recognizable on field as Polamalu’s, but it provides Head & Shoulders with an NFL player with distinctive hair.
While a full head of hair can turn an athlete into a recognizable figure, lack of hair can also achieve a similar affect. Former tennis player Andre Agassi is known for his eight grand slam titles and is also remembered for his shaved head. His lack of hair led UK razor company, Wilkinson Sword to partner with Agassi. Agassi went on to appear in commercials promoting the company’s unisex sport razor blades providing the brand with a natural spokesperson.
Normally there is little variance among eyebrows from athlete to athlete. However New Orleans Pelicans centre Anthony Davis’s has a very prominent unibrow, giving Davis a distinct look. Davis’s unibrow has been something that fans have celebrated since his college career at Kentucky. Fans could be seen wearing a variety of shirts with phrases referencing his unibrow. This led Davis to trademark the terms “Fear the Brow” and “Raise the Brow” when he finished his year at college, both sayings that could be commonly found on shirts. Since entering the NBA Davis has become an all-star player and considered one of the top players in the league. This has led to him starring in multiple commercials with Boost Mobile and Foot Locker both of which are non-hair brands, however in each commercial his unibrow is referenced.
Athletes usually reserve growing a beard for playoff time when it is a tradition not to shave. Brands have used this tradition as an opportunity to showcase creative activations. During the Montreal Canadiens playoff run in 2010, Bell had a face featured on their rinkboard that grew a beard as the game progressed. However, the beard tradition is usually reserved for playoff time and only a few athletes sport a beard throughout the year. This makes Houston Rockets James Harden a unique exception. Harden is famous for his large beard that he started growing in college because he was too lazy to shave it. His beard makes him instantly recognizable on the court as fans throughout the arena and watching on TV can pick out Harden. Houston Rockets fans have even come to home games sporting a fake James Harden beard; Harden has become synonymous with his facial hair. Harden has starred in commercials for the NBA 2K video game and Foot Locker with his beard being a focal point in each commercial.
Grooming company Wahl has taken partnering with a bearded athletes a step further and has “sponsored” the actual beard on Washington Nationals pitcher Gio Gonzalez. Wahl conducted their own study and found Washington was the most beard friendly city in the US, which lead them to sponsor Gonzalez’s beard. As part of the sponsorship, Gonzalez has agreed to keep his beard properly groomed and any reference to his beard must be preceded with “Sponsored, or brought to you by Wahl”.
Whether or not the corporate sponsor is a brand that is selling hair or grooming products, the uniqueness of the athlete’s image can be used in the brand’s activations.
Key Takeaways for Sponsors
In addition to increased recognition, brands can use athletes with trademark hair to accomplish a variety of marketing objectives.
Provide Non-Sport Brands With Authenticity- Sports sponsorship provide brands with a large audience and a high marketing value. Athletic brands have a natural entry point into a partnership with an athlete. However, hair and grooming products might not have that natural fit. By partnering with an athlete with distinct hair provides a hair brand with a legitimate and authentic entry point into the sports world.
Capitalize off Athletes as Fashion Influencers- More than ever before athletes have crossover appeal into the world of pop culture and fashion, as many people look to athletes for leading fashion trends. NBA player Russell Westbrook has launched a fashion line at Barneys and more players are venturing into lifestyle clothes in addition to athletic wear. Hair brands can now capitalize off athletes being seen as trend setters and use them to promote their product.
Ensure a Diversified Investment- A certain hairstyle much like any physical attribute can be short term. Brands must ensure their activation does not rely on solely the hairstyle but also a theme that can transcend the endorser. For example, Head & Shoulders has invested in a variety of athletes and created their new campaign features the tagline "Shoulders are Made for Greatness". As hairstyle’s come and go, investing in a range of athletes and telling a story bigger than the hairstyle can help create a more meaningful sponsorship.
Whether it is a distinct hairstyle, beard, or even eyebrows, an athlete’s hair can make them stand out from the crowd. Brands have tapped into this insight to leverage uniquely hairy players in their activations so they too can differentiate from the competition.