There May Never Be Another Magic Johnson

Road to Corporate Success for Celebrities Is Littered With Asterisks

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Doug Melville Doug Melville
This has been a weird few weeks on the credibility front. Three big corporate darlings who personified what people have come to expect from a brand ambassador fell by the wayside. Michael Phelps*, Olympic posterchild, got caught smoking weed. Alex Rodriguez*, the richest contracted athlete in sports history, admitted to using steroids. And Chris Brown*, teen singing sensation, got into trouble over Grammy weekend.

All three of these incidents have led me to put an underlying "marketing asterisk" on all of the endorsement/spokesperson deals that they have signed to date -- as well as to all of their possible deals forthcoming. As you may recall, the asterisk gained fame, or infamy, in baseball when Roger Maris broke Babe Ruth's home run record in 1961. They gave an asterisk to him and his home run record (61*) as a way to indicate he needed a longer season to break Babe's record. Although it was eventually removed, the * has become a symbol of a marred accomplishment (especially in sports).

Do you think the consumer, who is struggling to make ends meet, is more likely to purchase a product with these individuals as their spokesperson? NOPE. Do you think brand CMOs and agency executives are going to continue to throw long-term deals and marketing activation dollars against Americas youthful "squeaky clean" talent? NOPE.

In an age when budgets, marketing campaigns and corporate opportunities are becoming vastly limited or splintered in this economic climate, these three stars have not only hurt the chances for their own financial well being, but the chances of all other athletes, musicians and actors.

Unfortunately, they are not the first. These "slip-ups" have happened in the past. Some recent endorser asterisks in the news include Charles Barkley* (drunk driving), Michael Vick* (dog fighting) and Ricky Williams* (marijuana).

Hitching a brand on the shoulders of one personality has always been a precarious proposition. If it works -- a la Nike and Michael Jordan -- then it can work really well, but if it does not work, the marketing gods will be angered and administer a beating on both athlete and associated brands. Do you think CAA, IMG and William Morris are getting more endorsement calls for their list of clients because of the recent news? Probably not.

In fairness, the * is something that can be overcome. Kobe Bryant managed it by clearing his name of sexual assault charges. But even if your name is cleared, the charge will always be there -- primarily because of the internet. The internet is an unforgiving medium. Just Google search "Weed AND Phelps," and you are bound to see that infamous image stuck to Phelps' resume until the end of time, something that many of these individuals fail to realize before they act.

Which brings me to Earvin "Magic" Johnson. (Full disclosure: I worked as his VP of marketing until last December). What people fail to realize is that this man, who hasn't played a full season of basketball since the 1990-1991 season, still has much of the marketing power and relevancy that he possessed 18 years ago.

Magic preserved his brand despite announcing he had HIV -- which at the time seemed to be the most somber end to a man's journey (to say nothing about the marketing implications of such an announcement). And how'd he do it? By sticking to his core principles (both personal and business) and coming up with a strategic plan and carrying it out, using a mix of old-fashioned business skills and his considerable star power and goodwill.

Earvin "Magic" Johnson has overcome a challenge that was greater than anyone today can probably imagine. But it seems the hard work paid off.

To take a quote out of his latest book "32 Ways to Be a Champion in Business":

I am grateful for my experiences as an athlete. Yet the rewards of my entrepreneurial endeavors have been even more fulfilling. I've learned that creating jobs and providing goods and services to urban communities beats even five NBA championships.

If you would have taken a marketing survey in the early '90s and asked top marketing executives, "Will Magic Johnson be a premiere brand ambassador for the next 20 years?" I can bet more than 90% of them would have checked off "No" as soon as they got the survey in their hands.

Magic has been successful doing what he does best -- enabling other corporate brands to leverage his brand to maximize their potential as a team. And with that, his 18 year track record can not be duplicated. As you see with the latest Jackson Hewitt ads, Magic Johnson continues to endorse brands and stay in the news, by staying relevant and by giving back, a methodology that seems to be a dying art in marketing.

I think brands should rethink what is relevant in today's marketplace. Remember Dave Winfield and Reggie Jackson? They have no asterisk -- nor do they have any endorsements. Maybe marketers should take another a look at them. As time goes on, their accomplishments only look more impressive. In 2009, Tiger Woods and LeBron James look like the two chosen ones moving forward, but only the test of time will tell.

If today's brands are looking for "street cred" with today's youth, then the road is full of possible endorsers. But if your brand is looking to tie in to a solid track record of success -- there may never be another Magic Johnson.

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