Thinking Of Sponsoring An Olympic Athlete? Don’t Bother Argues The Latest Research

Thinking Of Sponsoring An Olympic Athlete? Don’t Bother Argues The Latest Research

In this opinion piece, Zac Anesbury (pictured below), a senior research associate at the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute based at the University of South Australia’s business school, takes a look at the sponsorship of Olympic athletes and asks is the (often) massive cost even worth the ROI…?


As the world is approaching the starting line for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, so too are the sponsorship deals for athletes. However, with multiple brands often sponsoring the same athlete, can a brand ever really ‘own’ an athlete as a distinctive asset? The power of a distinctive asset is that when you see it, you think of the brand name. It creates another opportunity for the brand to be thought about by consumers.

Looking back on the London 2012 Olympic Games, track and field star Jessica Ennis (now Ennis-Hill) was officially sponsored by Adidas, Olay and Powerade (just to name a few). Although none of these brands were direct competitors, they were all trying to create a link with Ennis. But, when people see Jessica Ennis, what brand name or names do they think of? Did any brands successfully build associations with Ennis?

The Ehrenberg-Bass Institute* surveyed the British public shortly after the London Games. A total of 770 people, aged from 16 to 89, completed our online questionnaire. Respondents were shown images of athletes, and asked to name up to four brands that came to mind. They had to recall the brands without prompting, which is a harder test that reflects a stronger link from the athlete to the brand in memory.

Our sample of athletes included Andy Murray, Bradley Wiggins, Chris Hoy, David Beckham, Jessica Ennis, Louise Smith, Mark Cavendish, Mo Farah, Oscar Pistorius, Usain Bolt and Victoria Pendleton.

Low levels of sponsorship association

Unfortunately, the news is not good for brands. Only 1.5 per cent of people linked the sponsoring brands to the athlete on average (yes, less than 2 per cent, and we showed participants pictures of the athletes). Having multiple sponsors creates two issues for brands. Firstly, seeing the athlete in ads for multiple brands makes it harder to establish memory links. Secondly, it means the different brands have to compete for retrieval in consumer’s minds when they see the athlete. I might see Usain Bolt and think Visa one time, then the next time Nissan and another time Puma. The more competitive the field of endorsing brands, the less likely any will gain major benefits from the endorsement.

It was a poor race, but there were front-runners. Visa was in the gold medal position, with 20 per cent linkage to the World’s Fastest Man – Usain Bolt. Coming home with silver was Sky, with a 10 per cent linkage to British cyclist Bradley Wiggins. There was a tie for bronze between David Beckham/Adidas and Jessica Ennis/Powerade.


Top brand for each athlete

Athlete Event Brand %
Usain Bolt Sprinter Visa 20
Bradley Wiggins Road Cyclist Sky 10
Jessica Ennis Track & Field Powerade 6
David Beckham Football Adidas 6
Andy Murray Tennis Adidas 5
Mo Farah Runner Adidas 4
Victoria Pendleton Track Cyclist Pantene 4
Mark Cavendish Road Cyclist Sky 4
Chris Hoy Track Cyclist Sky 2
Oscar Pistorius Sprinter BP 1
Louis Smith Gymnast Adidas 1
Average 5.6



The fragmentation of brands for each celebrity

Because people were free to associate any brand with the athletes (up to four or none), the responses were very fragmented. Athletes were associated with about 19 different brands across respondents on average; this means any sponsor was competing with 18 other brands. David Beckham led the pack with 28 brands linked to him, including his own ‘brand Beckham’! Even Visa was competing against 19 other brands for Usain Bolt in its sprint to the finishing line. Such low linkage, makes it difficult for the endorsement to build brand equity.

A signal of where advertisers might be handicapping themselves is that consumers often mentioned general categories (e.g. a breakfast cereal, a sports drink) rather than brands. Marketing dollars fall short when viewers connect the category to the athlete, but not brand name.

But more damaging to the endorsing brand is when direct competitors pop into the consumers’ heads. Powerade, for example, was linked with long distance runner Mo Farah twice as often as his official sponsor Lucozade.

Tips for building brand linkage with an athlete/sports event

Here are some tips for leveraging the fame of an event or athlete and still achieving good results for the brand.

  1. Athlete selection – Pick an athlete that won’t feature in campaigns for multiple brands. There is a temptation to follow the crowd and go with big name athletes, but remember, if the focus is the event and the brand, using a lesser known athlete can help you leverage the event, but still spotlight the brand and its message. The athlete becomes part of the execution, not it’s focus. If the athlete is relatively unknown (and therefore uncompetitive) it will be easier to build up links to your brand.
  1. Fresh creative – Make sure your advertising creative style deviates from the standard cookie-cutter athlete themed ad. This will decrease the chance of the ad being linked to other brands (including direct competitors). The more your ad looks like the archetype, the greater the chance of misattribution.
  1. Prominent branding – Make sure the focus is on the brand, not just the athlete, to give the brand a fighting chance to attract attention. Strong branding is very important when other ads (shown at the same time) contain similar creative ingredients, such as including an athlete. Strong branding also helps to quickly link that fresh creative style to your brand, which penalizes any mimicking by competitors.

By branding strongly, deviating from the athlete-ad archetype and choosing athletes that will not be promoting multiple endorsements, you will help customers build links to your brand and get better value from your sponsorship.

Interested in sports marketing? Make sure you’re at The Ministry Of Sports Marketing conference in Sydney on 19th July 2016. Full details are available here. 

* The Ehrenberg-Bass Institute, based at the University of South Australia Business School, is the world’s largest centre for research into marketing. For more information visit

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