Turning an athlete into a brand: Today's formula

Vernon Davis
Source: AOL
Vernon Davis

Vernon Davis spent nine seasons playing tight end for the San Francisco 49ers. After being traded to the Denver Broncos in November, he found himself having to transition to not only a new team, but a vastly different city.

Fans will now get a peek into what the move was like for the tight end, who heads to the Super Bowl on Feb. 7, thanks to a new three-part digital series on AOL called "The Ultimate Crossover." The entire project is in partnership with Lexus.

"Some of the things that I was able to do with them, going to different restaurants, going to the art museum, experiencing Denver for what it was, it made me cognizant for what Denver has to offer," said Davis. "It was a great opportunity for Lexus, and a great opportunity for me."

During the season, football is the main priority for Davis. But it doesn't mean that he can't start prepping himself for a post-football career, which makes it important for him to build his personal brand outside of what he does on the field.

"Whenever we're doing something, there always has to be a platform for doing something else," Davis said. "You always have to have goals and visions."

Of course turning athletes into brands is nothing new, New York Giants quarterback Frank Gifford sold Lucky Strike cigarettes in the early 1960s when smoking was still cool; Joe Namath promoted pantyhose and shaving cream to appeal to both women and men. But making an athlete a trusted brand these days is a much more complex and complicated endeavor than simply putting him or her in front of a camera for a 30-second commercial.

Today, social media like Twitter and Facebook and digital video platforms make it easier to share a curated personality. And, Davis is clearly been thinking about his brand: In 2014, he was the first athlete to debut with Fantex, an exchange where people can trade securities tied to athletes' worth. He's also got 889,000 followers on Instagram and 1.96 million followers on Twitter. Add to that more than 686,000 likes on Facebook.

"It's about creating another career outside your athletic career," said Ted Murphy, CEO of online marketing firm Izea, which has worked with Davis in the past. "These guys are smart enough to know they are only one big injury from being out of the game. They have a limited time frame to deal with their fame."

Cultivating your own personal brand isn't just about thinking about the future, J.J. Watt of the Houston Texans points out. Being an athlete today means you have to give more access to fans and share more about your day-to-day life, he said.

It also opens the floodgates for sponsorship deals, but Watt said you have to be smart about it.

"It just becomes white noise if you're constantly pitching products," he said.

Watt said he strives to come up with original posts that fit in with the values he would usually write about, instead of using something the company comes up with itself.

"Anyone who follows me on Twitter or Instagram, they know they're not going to see tons of ads and not a whole lot of product placement," Watt said. "I don't operate like that. I'm not going to have some paid ad. It's all going to be organic."

These posts can also bring in quite a bit of money. Izea's Murphy said midtier athletes can bring in tens of thousands of dollars for a single post. High-profile stars can command six figures.

Last April, Watt announced his deal with Reebok by completing a 5 feet 1 inch box jump using the company's ZPump Fusion shoes — and filming it and putting it on his social media feeds. Watt has 1.8 million followers on Instagram, and just shy of 1.6 million followers on Twitter.

The Reebok post got more than 68,000 likes on Instagram and more than 926,000 views on YouTube.

"It was J.J.'s idea and obviously we loved it because it was authentic to J.J. and exemplified our brand message," said Chris Waldeck, Reebok U.S. brand director. "We had seen J.J. fail his first attempt at a 5 feet 1 inch box jump, and we saw him try again until he accomplished it. That simple act — trying, failing and trying again — tied in perfectly to our brand message of 'Be More Human.'"

He's also leveraging his social media following to tout clothing brand Mizzen+Main, who made Watt its brand ambassador late last year. While Watt wasn't paid for his work, he did receive equity in the company. The brand plans to roll him out at their on-site event at this year's Super Bowl.

"To have someone like J.J. Watt is the absolute best in terms of (digital media reach)," said Kevin Lavelle, Mizzen+Main CEO. "And let's be honest, it doesn't hurt that he's popular in the looks category as well. ... He's a classic all-around American guy who can show the world we are out there in a way we could never hope to be at least for a long time."

J.J. Watt in a Mizzen+Main video ad
Source: Mizzen+Main
J.J. Watt in a Mizzen+Main video ad

Companies can take advantage of even subtler advertising techniques. For the Lexus-Davis deal, it means using Davis' digital prowess to reach new customers — even if that means focusing on a different subject than the product.

"The best commercials compel us to share," said Tariq Walker, vice president of creative development for digital video network AOL On. "Brands get engagement (even without displaying the product) because the advertisers are part and parcel, and not ham-fisted, beat you over the head with a specific product message. This is what you want when you want to build a relationship with the audience."

While the Lexus RX series is aimed toward customers of all ages, Brian Bolain, corporate marketing manager for Lexus, said the company knows it will be mostly people in their late 30s to 50s in the market for the luxury vehicles. Meanwhile, the digital video audience on average skews much younger.

Still, it makes sense for Lexus to use digital platforms to reach consumers, especially when the campaign revolves around a household name like Davis, Bolain points out.

"The other piece is advocacy," said Bolain. "The person who buys and drives the car is influenced by a lot of sources, and even if you talk to someone who is in a family situation, and you talk about how their children influence their purchases, any consumer is never irrelevant in terms of being an advocate."

Lexus is using "The Ultimate Crossover" to show that its RX line has evolved and is has redesigned, similar to Davis' story. While Lexus is the sponsor of "The Ultimate Crossover" and the car is shown in some scenes, ultimately the series focuses on what Davis wants to do, whether that's yoga or exploring Denver's art scene. (Davis was a studio art major at the University of Maryland, College Park.)

"If we had them artificially say something about the car, I think it would diminish the overall effect," said Bolain. "That's when it becomes advertising. I think people can become a little bit numb to that."