How to Build a Modern-Day Athlete's Brand Image

Photo by David Hofmann on Unsplash

Photo by David Hofmann on Unsplash

In 2014, Akiko Arai, Yong Jae Ko and Stephen Ross set out on a relatively unknown path.

In the wake of exponentially more athletes expanding their playbook beyond sports (e.g. philanthropy, social activism, entrepreneurship), and in light of a modern media culture that casts athletes as national emblems and cultural, ideological products desired by sports and non-sports fans alike, the term “athlete brand” has emerged from individual athletes’ multifunctional and multi-platform pursuits.

Few studies, however, had directly examined the construct of athlete brand image up to this point.

“If sport marketers can understand what creates brand associations or which association factors make an athlete a strong brand,” the professors wrote in their study, “they can develop marketing strategies to create new, favorable brand associations and reinforce existing positive brand associations.”

As the trio accurately acknowledges, the unique nature of sports (whereby brand managers must market athletes whose performance is often times unpredictable and inconsistent) means athlete brands “can only survive with new brand thinking,” a sequence of logic they borrowed from Philip Kotler, Ben Shields and Irving Rein — authors of The Elusive Fan: Reinventing Sports in a Crowded Marketplace.

In their article A sporting chance at branding, Kotler, Shields and Rein provide three innovative strategies for this “new brand thinking,” including:

  1. Transform the very character of an athlete brand by giving it a type, which ultimately becomes the symbol and key emotional connection between individual athletes and their fans (e.g. golfer Michelle Wie played the “phenom” type).

  2. Use a follow-up strategy to capitalize on brand-forming moments when they occur (e.g. NBA guard Jeremy Lin and “Linsanity”).

  3. Become both a content provider and media distributor (e.g. Olympic diver Tom Daley and his YouTube channel).

Professors Akiko Arai, Yong Jae Ko and Stephen Ross' definition of athlete brand image

Against the backdrop of these strategies, Arai, Ko and Ross developed the Model of Athlete Brand Image, which is broken down into three interdependent dimensions: athletic performance, attractive appearance, and marketable lifestyle.

The first dimension, athletic performance, refers to the associations fans make with an athlete’s on-field performance, including the athlete’s expertise (individual achievements, capabilities, experience, knowledge, qualifications and skills); competition style (how an athlete plays his or her sport); sportsmanship (fairness, integrity, ethical behavior, and respect for the game, opponents and teammates); and rivalry (competitive spirit).

Attractive appearance, the second dimension, alludes to an athlete’s physical attractiveness; symbol (personal style, fashion or “any outward unique features”); and body fitness. It “works as a ‘trademark’ for athlete brands,” the professors write.

While we know fans tend to make positive assessments about physically attractive athletes (especially female athletes), the word “attractive” in this case goes beyond surface-level judgments, instead indicating something that draws attention.

There are numerous examples of athletes whose physical appearance draws considerable attention, even if they aren't drop-dead gorgeous. Think: physique (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson), fashion sense (Russell Westbrook), height (José Altuve), weight (Jerome “The Bus” Bettis), body parts (Kawhi Leonard and his hands), tattoos (Chris Andersen), hairstyle (Odell Beckham Jr.), and facial hair (James Harden).

The third and final dimension, marketable lifestyle, encompasses an athlete’s off-field features, including life story (appealing off-field experiences); role model (ethical behavior that passes mainstream society’s test); and relationship effort (interactions with fans) — all of which elevate the athlete’s brand and personal value. According to the professors, “it is natural to assume that those off-field attributes have strong influence on consumers’ image, and thus brand equity, of the athlete.”

When athletes cultivate favorable, strong and unique brand associations in fans’ minds, they automatically bring more value to everything and everyone with whom they’re affiliated, and the results are incredible: more lucrative playing contracts, endorsement deals, and business arrangements ― as well as additional, scalable and in many ways passive income from as many as eight Internet-based revenue streams.

“There are numerous players who are very popular and have high commodity value despite their level of performance, and in some cases the opposite is true,” Arai, Ko and Ross conclude. “The question of what makes this difference is critical, and the idea of branding offers an effective guidance in answering this question.”