Olympians Go to Market: Is a Gold Medal a Safe Bet?


As the 2010 Winter Olympics wrap up in Vancouver on Sunday, the bodies that fueled them are gaining in momentum: The faces of triumph, pain, audacity, grief and luck are becoming icons. You probably know those names as well as anyone: skiers Lindsey Vonn (pictured) and Bode Miller; short-track speedskater Apolo Anton Ohno; pairs figure skaters Hongbo Zhao and Xue Shen; women's figure skater Kim Yu-Na. And the woman CNBC's Darren Rovell picked as 14th-most marketable Olympian, who would be in my top three: Joannie Rochette. She won the bronze in figure skating only days after her mother died of a heart attack.

Rovell's list of most-marketable names reads like the judges' comments on America's Next Top Model: The youngest and the prettiest are his top bets, whether or not they stood at the top of the medal podiums. Best of all in his estimation, are athletes who compete outside of chilly Olympics and can be promoted year-round, like his surprising No. 1 pick for most marketable athlete of the games: snowboarder Shaun White.

Rovell writes of White: "Participated in one event, in which he came in extremely hyped, and defended his gold in the halfpipe live in prime time. Those companies that have partnered with White -- like Red Bull, Target, Oakley and HP -- pay a premium because he competes year-round and can be pumped up at the X Games."

What's That Gold Medal Smile Worth to a Company?

It's hard to put exact figures on the value of the top 20 or 30 Olympians, but a name like Apolo Ohno -- with his U.S. record Winter Olympics medal count, his modern take on the "Karate Kid" look and the zingy one-liners he delivers with a smile -- is said to already have millions in endorsement deals, with companies including Coca-Cola (KO), Proctor & Gamble (PG) (for Vicks), Omega, Alaska Airlines (ALK) and (what else?) the Washington State Potato Commission. Perhaps the average top-30 Olympian generates about $1 million in deals. The bigger question is, do those endorsements work?

Ad industry analysts have their doubts. Sports marketing agent Peter Carlisle told The Seattle Times, "Most Olympic athletes, even if they have a huge amount of success at the Games where they are the story, it's still very challenging because the public was introduced to that athlete only a couple of weeks or months before the Games."

Well, this short exposure to the athletes' story lines is a tough break, but I'd argue that the real challenge is not that at all: It's convincing the public to believe in the athletes as true endorsers. After all, we know they are being paid to say they like McDonald's fries or Vicks Vaporub. How many of us can make the leap of faith required to believe that they'd do it even if they weren't paid?

Don't Show Us a Star -- Tell Us a Story

Let's look at what works. Of the most-loved advertisements of these Winter Olympic Games, few show the faces of currently competing, big-name athletes. Often cited as the most effective ad (and my sniffles as I type this say "I agree") is Procter & Gamble's montage of little children, dressed as Olympic athletes, beginning their events, with the tag line "To their Moms, they'll always be kids." One ad for Visa features a big name of yesteryear, Dan Jansen, in another tear-jerker about how his sister, Jane, died of cancer, and he promised her he'd win a medal.

On the other hand, while Coke's brand recall is up 77% and its snowball fight commercial is cute, its ads don't evoke much of an emotional, athletic-achievement response. I don't know who the "athlete" is who ultimately gets his Coke; I doubt most viewers do, either. (According to my research, he's an as-yet-unnamed actor.) And the McDonald's (MCD) ads, always prolific during the Olympic games, continue to provoke the same question year after year: Do Olympic athletes really eat at McDonald's? Patrick Chan, the leading McDonald's endorser, only managed a fifth place in men's figure skating and provokes a far less visceral response than athletes like Johnny Weir, whose sixth-place finish was (many believed) a swindle.

It's hard to believe in athletes as spokespeople these days, especially after Tiger Woods' fall from grace left us wondering: Do the roles they all model have any substance once the TV cameras are off? If we can make the leap to believe a Coke is all an athlete cares for, or that a mom who uses Tide will give her little one a better shot at an athletic future, are any of these lives worth striving toward?

Make the Emotional Connection

What's worth it to viewers are the stories that make us cry and smile at once. We want to see Rochette, with her brave bronze medal-winning performance after her mom's sudden death. We want Weir with his pluck and flare. We want Vonn, who wraps her hurt legs in Austrian cottage cheese and competes despite broken bones. And yes, we want Ohno, with his flip comments in the aftermath of disqualifications given, or mysteriously not given.

I predict, then, that Rochette will be the most marketable Olympic athlete; that the faces of Vonn and White and Ohno won't go away; that this pay-for-service connection between athletes and brands will continue to have diminishing returns. But we'll listen to your tear-inducing stories, big corporations: Telling us the stories is far more effective than showing us a guy eating french fries.

A face on a box of Wheaties (or on an Alaska Airlines plane or a Chapstick tube or a Gatorade bottle) is the old way, and out with the old! It was always a stretch, and today's media-savvy consuming populace has long-since caught on to the cozy game between the endorser and the endorsed. Our goodwill is still on the table, though, and can be bought with a good heart-wrenching tale any day. Medals come and go, but there's gold in them thar tears.