Marketing Michael

All that glitters isn't gold, say ad executives who remain bullish on Phelps through ups and downs.

August 18, 2004|By Andrea K. Walker | Andrea K. Walker,SUN STAFF

Michael Phelps' run for eight gold medals may have ended prematurely, but his role as company pitchman is expected to have staying power.

He won't get the $1 million bonus Speedo International Ltd. promised if he beat Mark Spitz's 1972 record for winning seven gold medals in a single Olympics. Some people think the front of a Wheaties box might be slightly farther from his reach, too.

But marketing executives largely agree that the bet many advertisers made on the Towson swimmer before the 28th Summer Olympiad in Athens, Greece, was a very sound one.

After all, he's still raking in medals - he won two golds yesterday to run his total to three golds and two bronzes. And he handled his bronze-medal finishes graciously - a trait intrinsic to celebrity marketing.

"What's important is the aspiration," said Mark Siegel, a spokesman for AT&T Wireless, the telecommunications company that uses Phelps in several advertisements. "It's not always about the number of medals, but the journey to get there."

"Seven golds is great. One gold is great. No gold medal is great," said Natalie Ferguson, sports marketing manager for California-based PowerBar, which also used Phelps in endorsements for its quick-energy snack. "We just believe in his work ethic and the way he is such a good ambassador for our product."

Refreshing story

In an Olympics faced with low attendance, the undertones of the war in Iraq and a drug scandal among a handful of athletes, Phelps' path to become one of the Olympics most-recognized athletes, including a few stumbles, remains a refreshing story, said marketing experts.

He became the youngest male since 1932 to qualify for a U.S. Olympic team in 2000, and although he didn't take home any medals from the Games in Sydney, Australia, he went on to break several world records over the next four years.

His "average kid" persona has universal appeal, from his headphones piping the rapper Eminem into his ears just seconds before he swims to his humility in post-race interviews, experts said.

"This was just an Olympics that lacked a marquee name" otherwise, said Rich Thomaselli, a sports marketing reporter for Ad Age magazine, explaining the clustering on Phelps. "He was it."

His face has virtually filled the commercial space of the Olympics, although no dollar-figure of his total endorsements is available.

His image is unavoidable on a telecast from Greece whether he's swimming or not: There's Phelps pitching cell phones for AT&T Wireless. And there's the Towson High grad again, in a humorous commercial for Visa credit cards, portrayed swimming the Atlantic Ocean from Greece to the Statue of Liberty, where he stops and proclaims he has finished his first lap.

"He is still a very positive image, and that image translates into the company's brand," said Chris Hopkins, a Clemson University assistant professor of marketing.

Most of the companies said their sponsorships of Phelps were based on the swimmer, not his medal total.

`Olympic spirit'

"For Visa, our Olympic marketing has always been about aligning with the athletes that represent the Olympic spirit," said Joe Carberry, vice president of corporate relations for Visa USA. "Michael Phelps embodies that spirit."

"We got into this when he didn't have any medals," said Jeff Gillis, executive vice president of operations at Argent Mortgage Co. LLC. The California company signed Phelps for its promotions because he represented an athlete who is changing the face of his sport.

"It's who he is and who he represents. It's his spirit and dedication that we were interested in," Gillis said.

Unquestionably, the chase for the gold-medal record stoked hype around Phelps that might not have otherwise existed. And some say some of the publicity around the star has died with his pursuit.

"He'll do well, but he won't have that elite athlete status," said Bob Leffler, of the Leffler Agency, a marketing agency with offices in Baltimore and Tampa, Fla., that represents several college sports programs.

"It stands to reason that there would have been a pretty amazing publicity engine that would have continued to roar if the race for Spitz would have continued," said Paul Swangard, managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon.

"If he would have broken the record or matched the record there would have been opportunities that would have existed that no longer exist."

Some say the intensity around breaking the record was fueled by Speedo, the British swimsuit maker that offered Phelps $1 million if he broke Spitz's 32-year-old record. Some critics said Speedo's gambit created unnecessary pressure on Phelps. The swimmer himself acknowledged that he feels some relief that the record is out of his sight.

Marketing appeal often goes beyond athletic talent. Golfer Tiger Woods was renowned not only for his athletic ability but also for his youth and cross-cultural appeal in a sport that long didn't symbolize either. Tennis star Anna Kournikova never won a tennis championship but has lucrative endorsement deals and has become an athletic sex symbol.

Phelps is young enough that he could have two more Olympics in his future, ad executives point out.

"His marketability right now is still untapped, and he still has the future ahead of him as far as I'm concerned," Thomaselli said. "He's a young guy and probably has his eyes on Beijing already" in the 2008 Summer Games.

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