Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Building an influential pyramid

The beginner emulates the intermediate. The intermediate copies the advanced. And the advanced player incorporates elements of the professional’s game into their own in an effort to compete at a higher level.

Marketing through the pyramid of influence is now a time worn strategy that has proven effective for marketers as diverse as Nike, Gatorade and Tide.

I’ve had the privilege of working with each of the athletes highlighted here in bold. Through both failure and success, I’ve learned a bit about working with celebrity endorsers to help increase the cache for sunglasses, bowling balls, baseball bats, tournament wakeboard boats, beach destinations and golf equipment. It’s fun. It’s rewarding. It’s expensive. It’s risky.

Here are a few observations from my experiences.

Mark Messier, Josh Sanders, Jason Couch, Chip Beck, Lisa Fernandez, The University of Miami Hurricanes, Emily Copeland Durham, Craig Biggio, Rusty Wallace and Reed Hansen.

It’s fun hiring a pro staff. Getting to meet your sports heroes is pretty heady stuff. As a former athlete, it’s natural to get caught up in the moment when we meet with the best in the sport. It’s much like being the General Manager of a pro sports franchise. You need to buy the athlete when their star is beginning to shine, before the exposure cost becomes astronomical. The biggest mistake you can make is signing an athlete at the end of their career. Of course, neither the Marketing Director or the athlete can fully know if they are ascending, peaking, or declining.
Brian Fortini, the smartest Marketing Director I ever worked with missed on Chip Beck and it virtually hamstrung every other effort he made until Chip's contract ran its course. On the other hand, Rick Tinker nailed it with Josh Sanders when the future King of the Wake was barely wake worthy.

This is less science than magic.

Can you afford the relationship?

Hiring a pro staff commits you to incorporating them into your marketing efforts. Do you have the funds to activate their contract? Can they deliver your message effectively? Will they give you a strong enough time commitment to allow you to build a program around them? Is the camera their friend? It makes little sense to add a person to your staff that you are unwilling to incorporate into your marketing materials.

Will your pro staff get press coverage?

You have to a few team members who are consistently on the podium. I would rather invest $100 in one guy who consistently wins, than $10 in ten people that are competitive but not winners. Your credibility rides on their performance.

Will your pro staff get additional endorsements?

The more brands that sponsor your athletes, the more visibility your athlete will bring to your company. You want an exclusive in your category, but the last thing you want to be is the only sponsor for an athlete.

Does your pro staff have a passion for your product?

Not just use it, but are they on fire to tell people about it. Josh Sanders was so convinced that Supra built the best tow boat on the water that he opened a dealership in Australia to sell them.

Are your pro staff members willing self-promoters?

If a person is uncomfortable with public appearances, how will they possibly become comfortable hawking your product? Do they aggressively seek out additional brand relationships? Are they willing to help you link up with their other co-sponsors?

How much Teflon are your pro staff members wearing?

People make mistakes. When a member of your pro staff publicly missteps your brand reputation is at risk. Truth is that professional athletes mistakes are amplified by the public spotlight. Some earn almost instant forgiveness, while others get pinned with a scarlet letter and can’t shake themselves from the stigma. Try to assess the public goodwill a person has built prior to committing to them.

Are you team members time suckers?

Some pro athletes require virtually no hand-holding, while others require full-time companionship. Given today’s shorthanded marketing departments, make certain that you have the internal resources to adequately manage these external resources.

Here is how the process breaks down for those of you who are considering creating your own pro staff.

1. Identify appropriate athlete.

2. Recruit (it’s more than money, it’s relationship building)

3. Paper the deal. Make certain to buy both their time and their attention. Limit your exposure, both in terms of the length of the deal, and in terms of their personal responsibility to your company and their code of conduct.

4. Embed them in your product development, your marketing materials, and in your event strategy. Most athletes need you to help build their ‘brand profile’ while they lend credibility to your own. Don’t paper the deal unless you can fully utilize their talents.

5. Stay in close contact, or as close as they will allow. Show up at their events. Physically and emotionally support them. Treat them like family members, not like paid vendors.

The rewards from a solid 'higher authority' strategy are often immediate and tangible. Your pro staff creates leverage for you with your dealer network, creates a buzz around the marketing department, provides a 'cool' factor for your team ... all that before a single product is sold. Used appropriately your R&D efforts can benefit from their insight, your marketing materials get a fresh focus, and your events become attendance-worthy.

Used poorly your budget gets fragmented, your message becomes muddled, and your time gets diverted from building your brand to building their brand.

Love to hear your stories from the pyramid. Post me.

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