In a trader’s ideal world, tennis star Naomi Osaka would walk the green grass of Wimbledon in stylishly modern Nike tennis whites, Beats by Dre Flex Wireless headphones clearly visible in her ears, with the pop of the neon green band of the Tag Heuer smartwatch that she wore on the cover of Vogue Japan catches your eye on its wrist. Then she would sit down and maybe get a quick massage with her Hyperice Hypervolt before warming up for her game. It would be a perfect – and perfectly natural – product placement moment that the whole world could see at the most renowned tennis tournament on the planet.
But this script does not happen. Not this year.
On June 17, Osaka announced that it was dropping out of Wimbledon, which began on June 28. She had decided to extend her Grand Slam break beyond Roland Garros, from which she withdrew on May 31, citing the need for a break to attend to her own sanity.
The timing for this Roland Garros announcement, after a wave of outrage in the press over its previous decision to skip media availability, was apparently a bit awkward for Osaka’s brand partners, which include not only those whose names have been verified above, but also Levi’s and Sweetgreen. In decades past, this situation would have been a nightmare scenario for the brand’s sponsors. Marketers have reportedly invested millions of dollars in creating advertising campaigns, events and more around their sports sponsor participating in their sport’s biggest scene. The question brands would have been asking themselves right now is: When will she perform again in front of millions of people? explains Basia Wojcik, vice president of sports at Marketing Arm, an agency specializing in the association of brands and athletes.
For much of the last century, brands have recruited athletes to endorse their products. From milk chocolate chesterfields to fast food to shoes, most are based on the idea that if those more than humans, physical specimens, and sports champions are using a certain product, it must be good enough for you and me. The more an athlete won, the more famous they became and, therefore, the more valuable their support was to marketers. It was also largely a time when what we knew about professional athletes was what we saw on the pitch or on the pitch. Maybe a magazine profile here and there, but really, the image of the athlete has been forged above all in the sport itself.
The post-Kaepernick era of sports marketing
Times, however, have changed and as Osaka has become a cultural figure beyond the tennis court, the fact that it is speaking about an important and personal issue is not just a commercial calamity, but offers a unique opportunity for its brand sponsors. Now, as Wojcik says, the conversation is more about: How long does she need? How long should we just go back? Then it’s about working with your managers and agents to ask yourself what it is like to come out of this period of calm, and what is the best way to work together to achieve it.
From the moment Osaka announced his withdrawal from Roland Garros, his brand sponsors have all publicly supported.
âWe don’t see this as a problem,â says Nathaniel Ru, co-founder and brand director of Sweetgreen. Just the week before Osaka’s exit from Roland Garros, the company caused a stir by announcing him as its very first national athlete ambassador and youngest investor. Osaka has its own signature bowl: hot quinoa, baby spinach, cilantro, tomato, tortilla chips, raw carrots, goat cheese, blackened chicken, lime-cilantro jalapeÃ±o vinaigrette, avocado and hot Sweetgreen sauce. And on May 26, 100% of sales from each Naomi Osaka Bowl went to supporting AAPI-led organizations dedicated to improving access to food in Asian American and island communities. of the Pacific.
âWe think of mental health like health in general,â Ru says, âso we thought about how we could support it. To be honest, we just gave him some room.
Chris Thorne, chief marketing officer for Beats by Dre, said his brand’s approach to Osaka right now is one of support, but he also refers to LeBron James’ More Than an Athlete platform, placing her in a category similar to that of James or former professional quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Kaepernick played his last game in the NFL in 2017, yet remains one of America’s most famous and popular athletes. Likewise, Osaka represents more than a potential Grand Slam victory.
âKaepernick doesn’t play sports right now, but he’s very active in a number of things we’re working on,â Thorne said. âIt’s not about being on the pitch. LeBron works a lot with Beats and you won’t see him in a basketball uniform. This is because they represent so much more. When we did the âYou Love Meâ campaign and the Beats Flex campaign, where Naomi braided âSilence is violenceâ through her hair, it wasn’t through her agent trying to convey a creative concept. We work directly with her, and it’s a collaboration of her ideas.
Create space and opportunities
Giving time and support to Osaka seems to be the consensus of all of its major sponsors. âOur hearts go out to Naomi,â Nike said in a statement. âWe support her and recognize her courage in sharing her own mental health experience. Watchmaker Tag Heuer’s statement said, “Naomi is going through some tough times and we really hope to see her again soon.” She is a great champion and we are convinced that she will emerge from this period stronger, whether professionally or personally. Like Sweetgreen, Tag Heuer is a recent partner, signing Osaka in January.
But Osaka’s move gives brands a chance to create goodwill PR by supporting the athlete. âIt gives brands the opportunity to pivot and tell a different story,â Wojcik explains. “You don’t talk about Wimbledon, but you still talk about Naomi and an important issue.”
The sport and performance of any athlete remains of course a vital aspect of their appeal to the public. But in the age of social media, athletes have become three-dimensional human beings with hobbies (what?!), passions (no!) and, yes, social and political opinions (shocking!) beyond their profession. Increasingly, these other aspects have become as important (or nearly so) to an athlete’s popularity and place in culture.
Training and recovery technology brand Hyperice has been working with Osaka since 2019, and CEO Jim Huether said the company originally partnered with it because of its presence and popularity with the public in the States. -United and in Japan, but also because of the authenticity of his voice in speaking to this audience. Her reasoning for skipping the events of the Grand Slam, and the way she articulated and handled that decision, only confirmed her commitment.
âHis leadership and ability to speak with his own voice has really proven to be powerful,â Huether said. âThe way she spoke about BLM is really inspiring. And I think we see the same with mental health. His voice resonates even beyond professional sport. It’s incredible.”
Property on approval
With a more direct connection with their audience and fans through their social media, athletes can turn each post into a moment of image building, their own story told by them. In other words, athletes, who no longer depend solely on the mainstream media and marketers to tell us who they are, have largely taken ownership of their personal brands. When it comes to partners, more and more, these athletes are also moving from endorsers holding the product and smiling to corporate investors.
Osaka is an investor in both Sweetgreen and Hyperice.
Huether believes her speaking out the way she did will be seen as a transformative moment that has helped a lot of people, and more corporate clients – such as Equinox, Best Buy, Nordstrom, and Orangetheory – have reached out to say they like it. Hyperice has Osaka as a partner and how brave she is. âWe got a better response from our partners on this than after his victory at the US Open,â said Huether. âThe selection of your ambassadors is very important because it is these people, and not just their performance, that will reflect on your brand. In fact, I think her decision to retire had more of an impact, both for her brand and ours, than if she had played and won.
Sweetgreen’s Ru says flexibility beyond the pro tennis schedule – and treating Naomi like a multidimensional human, not just a tennis player – has been built into their partnership from the start, making the past few weeks easy to navigate. “What we have tried to do with our marketing campaign is to overtake her as a tennis player that everyone knows and try to dig deeper into what she loves to do and what her passions are apart from. tennis, âRu said. âNaomi is very fond of food, she loves playing video games, she loves to meditate, she loves fashion. We just wanted to make it fun and show off the layers behind the tennis player, and it was really fun doing it.
Unlike any given sports season, pop culture never stops and marketers act on it. According to Beats by Dre’s Thorne, “The message of working with Naomi is going to be great in January or June, whatever.”