Soccer Players Raise the Standard for Athlete Branding

From Neymar to Ronaldo, soccer stars are brand icons.

Photo via @Nike

Neymar Jr. runs across a graffiti-covered concrete athletic facility, busting pass defenders, his flashy moves highlighted by a horde of Super Mario-like graphics as hip hop music blasts through the speakers. He scores a goal and strolls back towards the midfield casually, laughing as he snaps a picture of a pair of defenders on the ground, their legs tied up in knots, along the way.

The Neymar Jr. Mixtape and music video, released in partnership with Nike last month, showcased all this and more. The campaign was edgy, flashy, energetic and completely in line with Neymar’s personality.

A sponsorship is able to boost an athlete’s brand, but the athlete needs to lay the foundation of their brand themselves first. Building a brand requires more than just high-level performance.

Chris Stearns, a digital account manager at Gilt Edge Soccer Marketing, says, “Performance on the field is definitely a component [of an athlete’s brand], but in today’s digital world, it’s only a small part. Social media has really allowed athletes to showcase their personality and connect with fans in a way that was impossible not that long ago.”

Neymar, is a great example of an athlete who has given his fans access through his social media accounts. His Instagram Story is generally packed with videos of him singing or joking and playing games with his friends, giving fans a closer look into his life and personality.

Through his antics off the field and impressive performance on it, Neymar has built himself a strong brand. So strong, in fact, that despite being one of the world’s best and most recognizable soccer players, he actually makes more money from endorsements off the field than from his salary on it.

Neymar, though, doesn’t have the most valuable brand in soccer. That honor goes to Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo.

Ronaldo isn’t just the most valuable athlete brand in soccer, but the sixth most valuable brand in sports, according to a Forbes report.

His personal brand is more valuable than the New York Yankees, the Golden State Warriors, and Budweiser among many other notable companies, organizations and teams.

His personality and brand are different than Neymar’s. His brand is serious and polished while Neymar’s is playful and edgy. It is composed while Neymar’s is rebellious. It is subtly flashy and luxurious. More than anything, Ronaldo’s brand is untouchable. The way in which Ronaldo engages on social media portrays him as an idol, not a friend. In the way that Neymar is frequently found singing on his Instagram Story, Ronaldo is not. His engagements are more selective — like his spontaneous Instagram Live Q&A to celebrate reaching 100 million followers.

Everyone wants a piece of Ronaldo. His brand on social media generated $936 million in media value for his sponsors last year, seven times more than any other athlete. The recent announcement of him as the cover athlete for FIFA 18 could boost the sale of the EA game by 10%. That is a true testament to his brand value.

Photo via @EASports

As a four-time Ballon d’Or winner, Portuguese Euro Cup champion and back-to-back Champion’s League winner, Ronaldo’s skill alone is a huge boost to his brand.

The only player close to him in skill and accolades is Lionel Messi, yet Messi fails to make the same splash on social media and with endorsers as either Ronaldo or Neymar.

He is the shyer of the three branding superstars, family-focused and generally one to avoid the spotlight. His skills and the impact he’s had on soccer carry his brand.

Neymar described Messi’s brand best in his birthday tribute to the five-time Ballon d’Or winner. “Fútbol sin tú no es fútbol,” he wrote, which translates to “Soccer without you is not soccer.” Messi’s name will forever be synonymous with the sport and that, in and of itself, carries his brand.

Few players are on the same playing level as Messi and Ronaldo, though, and thus need to find different ways to differentiate their brands. For that reason, Stearns believes, in general, “personality is more marketable from a branding perspective, although playing ability and skills definitely contribute to an athlete’s brand.”

Patrice Evra is a player who has used his personality to create a strong brand and is one of Stearns’ favorite personalities in soccer.

Evra, who currently plays for Marseille, has had a successful career across teams like Monaco, Manchester United and Juventus and as a captain of the French national team. More recently, though, his brand has gotten a boost through social media.

An easy way to get his joyous, energetic, and self-described “crazy” personality across, Evra has gone viral on several occasions through his entertaining Instagram account. Videos with his catchphrase “I love this game,” feature him dancing, with his family, in a Jacuzzi in the middle of the ocean, and, occasionally with friend and former teammate Paul Pogba.

Pogba, himself, has gotten a brand boost in the past year as he moved to Manchester United for a record £89 million transfer deal. “Many even view him as ‘more of a brand than a soccer player’ since moving to England,” commented Stearns.

This belief has been boosted in large part by Pogba’s partnership with adidas. The global apparel brand has recently positioned Pogba as one of the faces of the company allowing him to use an adidas branded plane and releasing a music video featuring Pogba and rapper Desiigner to promote the new Manchester United away kit.

Pogba takes off for China in his adidas branded plane (photo via @PaulPogba)

While different in tone, the Pogba video was similar to Neymar’s Mixtape in the sense that both videos strayed from traditional soccer marketing, almost doubling as music videos, and added in aspects of the players’ edgy personalities.

Both Pogba and Neymar are young players on world-renowned clubs. They have flashy brands and are innovative and somewhat rebellious in their activations. It will be interesting to see if through their untraditional activations, they will raise the standard of athlete branding moving forward.

Not all young athletes have made the same splash for their European clubs as Neymar or Pogba, though.

James Rodriguez, the huge signee for Real Madrid after his remarkable 2014 World Cup performance, has primarily been a bench warmer since joining the club. Yet despite seeing little playing time, his annual revenue from branding is one of the highest in soccer, above the likes of stars such as Luis Suarez, Wayne Rooney, and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, according to a Forbes report.

Rodriguez’ brand and endorsement value, though bolstered by being associated with Real Madrid, primarily comes from his role as the captain of the Colombian National team. In this way, his personal brand also represents the rebranding of the sport in a country.

Soccer, which is everything in Colombia, was put back onto the world stage thanks, in large part, to Rodriguez and his Golden Boot-winning performance in the 2014 World Cup. After leading Colombia out of a decade of dark years in soccer, he has now become the face of the sport in the country.

James Rodriguez leads the 2014 Colombian World Cup team in a celebratory dance (photo via @NYTimes)

Similar to Rodriguez, the standout players from the U.S. Women’s National Team became the face of soccer for their country. Carli Lloyd, Megan Rapinoe, Alex Morgan, and Abby Wambach led a successful World Cup campaign and followed it up by fighting for equal pay for the USWNT. These actions not only strengthened their individual brands but also helped them redefine and rebrand women’s soccer.

The USWNT celebrates its World Cup win in 2015 (photo via @ESPN)

While there is no shortage of top talent to follow in the soccer world, not all teams get the same amount of exposure, particularly female teams.

Clubs in leagues like the Premier League and La Liga generally get more exposure, thus giving their players a slight platform edge when it comes to personal branding.

Still, Stearns argues, “the global nature of the sport and of social media allows anyone anywhere to be connected to any player in any league at any time. Bayern Munich have done a fantastic job with social media training of all their players and you really see their individual personalities shine through.”

What Bayern is doing is what every team should be doing. Social media is an excellent way for athletes to take more control over building their personal brand off the field. It provides athletes a way to define and differentiate themselves outside of their playing abilities, boosts endorsement opportunities and can even allow for career longevity as players shift to leagues like Major League Soccer at the latter part of their careers, like in the case with Bastian Schweinsteiger.

“You can’t fake a personality,” claims Stearns, “otherwise fans and potential consumers will see right through that.”

Athletes’ brands have to be genuine, authentic, and consistent. One of the reasons that Neymar, Ronaldo, and Messi’s brands are so successful, is that despite being very different, they meet all of those criteria. With a young crop of players quickly rising through the ranks of leagues across the world, it will be interesting to see the emergence of a new generation of branding.

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