Selling Phelps: Not in China

The Swimmer's Triumph Will Not Translate Into Sponsorship Deals in the Mainland

By Published on .

David Wolf
David Wolf
Since Michael Phelps scored the sixth of his eventual eight gold medals here at the Beijing Games, I have heard several people -- all very experienced marketers, and all non-Chinese -- suggest that Michael Phelps has a golden career ahead of him here in China doing product endorsements. They're wrong.

This is not to say Mr. Phelps does not have wonderful prospects back home in the U.S., where he is sure to do well, or even have niche appeal here.

But his prowess in the pool is not going to help him build a lucrative, lasting career in China, unfortunately, for several reasons.

First, China has proven itself adept at producing its own celebrity spokespeople, and Chinese have grown to prefer locals over foreigners.

There are exceptions. Kobe Bryant and LeBron James could make it here, but they've earned their way into the Chinese zeitgeist via the power and appeal of the NBA in China. The occasional basketball star aside, the halcyon days of foreign spokesmen in China are over.

Second, Mr. Phelps is an American, or to put it more succinctly, he is not Chinese. In the wake of the landslide of Chinese gold medals (Liu Xiang's untimely withdrawal from the 110-meter hurdles notwithstanding), there are already three dozen certified Chinese heroes who can relate to the locals better than Mr. Phelps could ever hope to.

Third, while NBC has been giving Mr. Phelps a hero's coverage, Chinese coverage has been somewhat less fawning. It has been respectful, appreciative and sometimes excited, yet understandably less so than the coverage of homegrown stars. As a result, Chinese are impressed with the swimmer, to be sure, but he hasn't made a deep, emotional connection with the people.

Finally, when China's national broadcaster, CCTV, tried to interview Mr. Phelps after his eighth gold, he answered with what sounded like a stock reply and then quickly moved on, cutting off the bewildered CCTV correspondent in mid-sentence. It was awkward and left many local viewers wondering if he was just plain rude.

Nobody expects Mr. Phelps to speak Chinese. But taking the time to reach out to his hosts would have been nice. The CCTV interview wouldn't matter at all if Mr. Phelps would make some sort of spontaneous, genuine gesture to connect to the Chinese people, to win his way into their hearts. But he may well have missed his best opportunities to do so in the moments after each of his eight victories.

Companies hire celebrity endorsers in China to borrow the appeal that celebrity has with the wider local audience, in hopes of transferring that appeal to the company or its product. Until Mr. Phelps does something to actually cultivate his appeal here, his local value as a spokesman will be limited at best.

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