Stephanie Rice probably wasn’t motivated by homophobia when she tweeted “Suck on that, faggots!” as Australia beat South Africa in a rugby match. But, as her commercial sponsors and endorsees have rapidly acknowledged, her remark was bound to be found offensive by many people, gay and straight, with potential adverse consequences for their brands.
Jaguar acted swiftly yesterday to distance itself from Rice, who was its only sponsored athlete in Australia, taking back the $100,000 car she’d been driving. It’s not that the tweet itself is likely to have damaged the Jaguar brand greatly, although her connection to the brand was mentioned in numerous media reports. More likely is that management at Jaguar felt her tweet was symptomatic of an underlying lack of poise and class — a touch of the inner bogan, perhaps — and hence something that’s not a comfortable fit with the Jaguar brand.
Doubtless, there is also a touch of pragmatism in Jaguar’s decision. Rice will not be competing at the forthcoming Commonwealth Games because of injury, and won’t be in the international sporting spotlight again for many months. The risk of continuing to sponsor her through a long period of non-competition may well have been seen to outweigh the potential gains.
Davenport underwear, another of Rice’s sponsors, has also made clear publicly that it does not condone her comment. So far, though, there’s been no reaction from SunRice, for whom Stephanie Rice is a “brand ambassador”.
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Sponsors choose celebrities or sportspeople as brand endorsers or ambassadors not only to capitalise on their visibility and media worthiness, but also with the aim of harnessing valuable intangible associations. Many consumers associate an attractive, gold medal-winning swimmer with attributes such as success, athleticism, youth, endurance, high performance, daring and world’s best. Many marketers would like to have some or all of those attributes rub off in the way consumers think about their brands.
But the choice to tie your brand to an individual inevitably entails an evaluation of benefits against risks. High-performing athletes may bring positive and desirable associations, but as they rise to fame, their off-field demeanour, behaviour and relationships also become an increasingly prominent part of the total package.
“Edgy” brands are sometimes prepared to court controversy by sticking with an unpredictable or risky endorser athlete in order to capitalise on “rebel” or “outsider” imagery in their brand positioning. The Converse footwear brand, arguably the “rebel” of sporting brands at the time, signed a deal with the aggressive and outspoken US “bad boy” basketballer Dennis Rodman in the 1990s. But even Converse lost its nerve as Rodman’s behaviour on and off court got stranger and his piercings and tattoos more numerous, ending its deal early in 1999.
A mainstream fashion brand such as Davenport is unlikely to be happy with anything that might polarise consumer audiences or alienate important and influential segments such as gay consumers. SunRice, while also a mainstream brand, competes in a commodity market where brand image has comparatively less impact. Its other sponsorships include the Deniliquin Ute Muster, which probably provides quite a mixed bag of brand images and associations. No doubt, however, SunRice will also wish to avoid any kind of consumer backlash or boycott based on Rice’s behaviour.
Of course, the reaction to Rice’s tweet and Jaguar’s withdrawal have attracted the inevitable chorus of “political correctness gone mad”. But sponsors do need to be careful that termination of an endorsement or sponsorship does not land them in further trouble, either in terms of consumer sentiment or, indeed, legal and financial liability.
So-called “morals clauses” are now the rule in major sporting sponsorship contracts in the US. Not only do they protect the sponsor financially, but they also force the athlete and the brand manager to consider and codify what sort of conduct has the potential to damage the brand.