Brand Advisory: Phelps’ Brand Is Going To Need All The Help It Can Get

The Marketing Doctor says:

Phelps’ Brand Is Going To Need All The Help It Can Get

(To Win the Marketing Game in the Long Run)

Michael Phelps has dominated the Olympics.  If he were a country, he would rank fourth in the gold medal count.  He has beaten Mark Spitz’s long-standing record; and on top of all of this, he seems to be an extremely upstanding guy –someone who possesses the rare ability to be both an incredible champion and an incredibly down-to-earth human being.  

In other words, he is a terrific personal brand. 

He needs to be, because he’s got an uphill battle from a marketing perspective. 

Let me outline why it’s an uphill battle and then show why Phelps can succeed where many marketing pundits are saying he can’t.

The Uphill Battle

Mark Spitz, who has been brought up a lot recently in light of Phelp’s achievements, is only one example of a major Olympian who won big, became an icon and wasn’t able to capitalize on it. Do we all know Spitz’s name? Absolutely.  Does he make a killing from endorsements?  No.  Did he ever? Not really (at least not compared to other athletes of his stature).

You could easily blame this fact on Spitz himself.  He was a very different man from Phelps.  He didn’t shy away from controversy and was seen as arrogant. 

But you can’t really blame it on the young Spitz (or his desperate need for media training), because the same strange mixture of flash-in-the-pan stardom and atheltic immortality holds true for so many great Olympians.  Mary Lou Retton, Nadia Comaneci, Eric Heiden.  Not one of them ever really parlayed their victories into lifelong marketing revenue… 

While each of them still has a recognizable public profile and is resurrected every four years at the Olympics as a legend –revenue-generating brands they are not.

And herein lies the challenge for Phelps.  His brand is projected to earn 100 million over its lifetime.  That may be about right for those endorsement deals that flow from this recent victory and go over the next few years.  But the comparisons between Phelps and Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan and David Beckham that are being made now are problematic.

Why?  Because the weakness in the brand’s marketing heft doesn’t rest with the Phelps’ brand, it rests with the sport of swimming and the Olympic tie-in. 

First, the sport of swimming may be professional, but it doesn’t have the ongoing event-based strength and wide public participation and interest that golf, basketball and soccer have worldwide.  Second, the Olympics might be the kiss of life for the Phelps’ brand and others, but in a way they are also the kiss of death…because they are episodic. 

In other words, the Olympics are not just seasonal, they are every four years, and moreover a huge part of the Olympics is the introduction of fresh faces at every Games.  Sure, we like the veteran stories (i.e. Dara Torres), but a big part of the Olympics is hoping for that bright new talent to shine on the world stage and make everyone feel great about individual achievement again, et cetera.

Every personal brand has a shelf life, but an Olympic brand in a low-profile sport is really limited.


Why Phelps Can Buck The Trend

Many pundits are making arguments like the above and concluding wrongly— that Phelps is going to go the same route.  The Marketing Doctor says not so fast.  Here’s why: 

First, Phelps has many things going for him.  Beyond all his formidable and amiable personal attributes, he also studied sports management at the University of Michigan.

So if anyone can buck the trend, I’m betting on Phelps. 

He has already stated that unlike Spitz, he wants to work hard to raise swimming’s profile he’s planning on buying a pool/training facility with his long-time coach— and get more people involved in the sport nationwide. 

If competitive swimming does become big and Phelps keeps swimming in high-profile, non-Olympic competitions like Woods and Beckham keep competing in their respective sports— then his star and revenue will continue to rise for these more standard sports marketing reasons. 

But I wouldn’t count on this alone and, besides, what Phelps really has going for him is the fact that marketing is the new advertising and he’s driven, energetic and accessible (the most necessary brand qualities in today’s marketing). 

It’s not about getting your face on a Wheaties box and being done with it anymore.  Marketing today has to happen on so many levels and keep being reinforced.  Phelps is the brand to do this.

We’ve already seen how another champion Lance Armstrong— has moved beyond his sport to become a highly successful and enduring personal brand. 

Phelps can do the same and even greater. 

Like Lance, he can parlay his own difficult experiences into an inspirational outreach that will have universal and lasting appeal : 1) raised by a single mom, 2) picked on at school; and 3) triumphed over ADHD without medication (Armstrong had his triumph over cancer). Each of these fit a heroic story line that millions of people can identify with, and Phelps is the perfect candidate to deliver the inspirational message.

Even better, Phelps can develop these points in many different outlets such as video games, television shows (a cartoon series featuring Phelps, anyone?), webisodes, a Phelps foundation that focuses on young people –has there been anyone of his stature who has been so open about being bullied?  Bullying is a major issue and here’s a brand that has succeeded despite it and can inspire others to do the same (and that’s just one of Phelp’s inspirational “marketing” points). 

He can also harness the interactivity of the Internet something he’s already doing with his profoundly successful Facebook page— to connect with a whole generation of kids and young adults and keep them in the Phelps’ loop.

The main thing is that Phelps identifies his lasting-brand strengths, uses swimming as the springboard, and then keeps reinforcing his brand in the public eye through a dynamic mix of advertising and all the other active (and interactive) marketing that’s out there now. 

If he does, I guarantee that he’s going to buck the dismal Olympic brand marketing record and once again prove his critics wrong.

And remember, it’s always easier when you keep branding in mind.


Even the greatest personal brands require great marketing to flourish.


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