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Volume 21 No. 2
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Well-groomed messaging

Athletes past and present find a strong niche in the endorsement market as demand rises for male grooming products and fashion

About the time end-zone dancing led Pro Bowlers to “Dancing with the Stars,” the athlete endorsement game mushroomed, fueled in no small part by soaring demand for male grooming products.

What’s striking is less the novelty of athletes pitching products beyond their immediate sphere of influence (sneakers, sports drinks and equipment) than the proliferation of tie-ins to products of all kind.

To be sure, Gillette forged its ties with Major League Baseball in the middle of the 20th century, with little difference between Derek Jeter and Roger Federer demonstrating the latest blades and long-ago endorsements by the likes of Honus Wagner, Willie Mays and Hank Aaron. What has changed is Gillette, now part of Procter & Gamble, uses its sports ties to pitch deodorant, face creams and more.

And the rise of social media has made it possible for athletes and consumers to connect on a more personal level, which further bolsters their ability to hawk personal products and even talk fashion.

Doug Flutie is among the sports personalities who have appeared in "Journey to Comfort" vignettes for Dove.
Anyone watching football this season has likely seen the Dove-sponsored “Journey to Comfort” vignettes of former quarterbacks Doug Flutie and John Elway. Part of a continuing series based on a soft sell of men’s skin care, Flutie and Elway, like previous endorsers such as Kirk Herbstreit, Shaquille O’Neal and Albert Pujols, tell stories about their personal lives and never mention Dove products.

Instead, each spot closes with the tag line, “My name is … and I am definitely comfortable in my own skin.” Translation: Hey, every guy, even a tough athlete, can laugh at himself and, yes, even think about moisturizer.

A recent study by The NPD Group provides an easy answer for those wondering why Joe Mauer and Troy Polamalu can’t stop jawing about dandruff control and why Matthew Stafford sought the guidance of retired footballers Steve Young and Jerry Rice for his fashion sense.

NPD, in a study released in February, found that 90 percent of men ages 18 and up use some type of grooming product, ranging from facial and body skincare to hair gels and colognes. Sales of skincare products for guys grew by 11 percent in 2011 compared with the previous year.

Retailers have created more shelf space for men’s grooming products, similar to a recent explosion in men shopping for

clothes in a trendier, more frequent manner compared with previous generations. Thus, Tom Brady swaps his cleats for a pair of Uggs while Dan Marino puts a male spin on bikini-season worries by pitching Nutrisystem. And, yes, those images of Joe Torre, Terry Francona and Phil Simms chuckling over a cup of Bigelow Tea were intentional, not to be mistaken for a “Saturday Night Live” parody.

“Personal care and grooming, these categories are exploding for men,” said Rob Candelino, vice president of Unilever Skin-care, which includes the Dove Men+Care line. “Ten years ago, we didn’t have body washes [for men]. There is a huge opportunity to talk about these products.”

And, Candelino adds, sports sell, especially for guys. But, he and others note, the tone and the approach are a bit different.

Dove’s campaign goes out of its way to avoid a hard sell, something company executives say would ring hollow. Instead, the ads aim to show notable athletes as genuine, confident people who also have the same roles as their target customers: fathers, sons, husbands.

Establishing comfort with the notion of buying skin lotion, or shopping for form as well as function in a wardrobe, becomes much easier with an influential athlete doing the talking, companies say. And, if the pitch works, the chances increase for keeping a customer for years to come.

Clothing company PVH, which includes the Van Heusen line of shirts and ties, signed Stafford, the 24-year-old up-and-

Quarterback Matthew Stafford endorses Van Heusen's line of shirts and ties.
coming quarterback for the Detroit Lions, as a spokesman this year. He joins retired San Francisco 49ers stars Rice and Young, neatly tying together the company’s target customer (a 26-year-old young professional) with its average buyer (a 39-year-old established in his career path).

Ads featuring the football players include online elements such as a “playbook” offering fashion tips on how to layer sweaters and shirts, how to pair clothing items and how to have a more stylish look at the office and on the town. Sports drive the company’s advertising now, a shift from several years ago when 90 percent went to fashion magazines.

Mike Kelly, PVH executive vice president of marketing, said athletes are a natural if a company wants men to listen to its message.

The idea for the football-themed campaign blossomed as Kelly and his wife sat at a W Hotel in Miami and noticed a nightclub scene divided between women dressed to the nines and men dressed to mow lawns.

“The men were like schlubs, jeans and T-shirts,” Kelly said. “It was like they had forgotten to show up for the game. My wife and I talked about how guys needed to get snapped up, like ‘Hard Knocks’ and training camp” for fashion.

Kelly, echoing other experts, said the advent of social media and endless cross-pollination with entertainment and fashion, heightens the interest in athletes.

Rice, the Pro Football Hall of Fame receiver, may be better known these days for his stint on “Dancing with the Stars” than for catching Super Bowl passes from Joe Montana. Hines Ward, Donald Driver, Warren Sapp, Emmitt Smith and Kurt Warner have also tapped their toes on the show before millions of viewers who may have been casual NFL fans, at best. Such forays bring a broader audience and make the athletes accessible in a way they never were on the field. Social media, “Dancing” and other reality shows enhance the effect.

“There’s crossover appeal,” said Jonathan Norman, senior director for client strategy at GMR Marketing, a frequent adviser to brands. “It keeps them relevant outside of the season.”

More and more, companies consider that kind of reach not just relevant, but essential. A few years ago, social media “used to be nice to have,” said Greg Goldring, director of marketing at Platinum Rye Entertainment, which works with P&G, among other companies. “Now it’s a must-have.”

The constant chatter between celebrity and fan creates a relationship that didn’t exist five or 10 years ago, experts say. And, in its best form, tweets and cameos show athletes in a new light, humorous or humble, or just interested in life beyond the playing field.

Agents say companies routinely ask how many followers an athlete has on Twitter and how many likes on Facebook. Endorsement talks almost always include a social media component, but athletes and agents want to be sure to avoid clumsy sales pitches.

“It’s got to be more creative than, ‘I just rolled out of bed, boy do I like these Pringles,’” said Lowell Taub, head of sports endorsements at CAA. “You have to make it engaging to the fan rather than a blatant, boring plug.”

Erik Spanberg writes for the Charlotte Business Journal, an affiliated publication.