When we think of Wimbledon, there are certain brands that spring to mind: Pimm’s, Lanson, Robinson’s, Rolex. Perhaps less obvious, but no less important, are the brands of the players themselves. Brands are made up of associations in people’s hearts and minds, and sportspeople generate those associations too. In fact they generate incredibly strong ones among those who have intense relationships with that sport, associations which evolve over time. (Look at John McEnroe – from brattish and unloved, to grudgingly admired, to respected, to popular self-deprecating commentator.) Players have to manage their own brands – not too obviously in case they look cynical – and if they do so successfully it can help them build a world-class career, like the very wealthy Roger Federer.
At the same time, damage to a player’s brand reputation can have major effects on their potential wealth. Just ask Tiger Woods, or Maria Sharapova as she waits anxiously on the long-term future of her sponsorships.
So what kinds of brands are these players? How do they vary? What are their issues and opportunities as brands? One way to look at this is through the use of ‘archetypes’, commonly used in the brand world to compare brands with particular character types such as ‘hero’, ‘joker’, ‘rebel’, ‘king’. So what archetypes might each of these players be? And what does that mean for their brands and the brands that sponsor them?
Serena is a ‘hero’. She’s hard-working, determined, brave and helps others. Heroes often come from humble roots and overcome difficult challenges to achieve remarkable success. Serena has travelled far from a tough background to a point where she is regarded by many as the greatest female athlete to have ever lived. Her sponsor Nike is a hero brand too, and she embodies ‘Just Do It.’
The challenge for heroes is that they have further to fall. If a hero fails to live up to their iconic status then people aren’t just disappointed, they weep. Nike itself found that when it faced challenges about its labour practices and had to work hard to restore trust and admiration. But there is no sense that Serena’s heroic mantle is about to slip, although you can bet it’s not an easy job to maintain those standards.
Well, he’s clearly a ‘king.’ In fact he’s frequently referred to as the king. Not just ‘the king of SW19’ but the king of tennis – dominant, authoritative, effortlessly powerful. His sponsors, who include Mercedes and Credit Suisse, either have those qualities or want a piece of them. And it’s why those rare occasions when Federer actually does lose his cool are so gleefully publicised by the press, because that’s not what kings are supposed to do.
The challenge for a king of tennis is what happens next, when (eventually) someone else takes over. It’s not easy being a former king. (Just ask ‘King Lear’, if you like Shakespeare, who understood recognisable human archetypes long before the term was invented.) But Federer is smart enough to evolve his kingly status into something that has value for people long after his competitive reign is over, should he wish to.
Is clearly a ‘rebel’. You can tell that just by looking at his socks, which are very important garments in tennis. Stephen Potter, the unheralded genius of sports writing, knew this when he coined the Old Gamesman’s maxim that ‘if you can’t volley, wear velvet socks.’ Murray can volley, clearly, but he still wears rebel socks because not only might it unsettle opponents, but it builds his brand appropriately. Rebels are genuine, rather enjoy upsetting people, and do things their own way. But when they have talent, that makes them very interesting. And so he seems like a better fit for challenger brand Under Armour than for former sponsor Adidas.
The challenge for rebels is that they can be polarising and they walk a tightrope between being interesting and annoying. Mass alienation is not a good brand strategy, and Murray has had his moments, but his dry humour and tenacious brilliance are gradually winning fans. And if he needs brand inspiration, ironically he can look to McEnroe, the fiercest rival of his current coach Ivan Lendl.
Guessing each player’s archetype is a fascinating pastime. Nadal has quite a lot of Jester, and Marcus Willis looks like he has even more. But it’s not always easy. Maria Sharapova is superficially a Temptress, but there’s a lot more to her than that. Novak Djokovic doesn’t sell his archetype easily. One thing’s for sure though: these people are brands, in the positive sense that they mean something to many, many people. And watching those brands develop is a fascinating and high-stakes game.