In our marketing literate society we are all familiar with the concept of people as brands, but what makes one person good brand material and the next a non runner? What, for example, makes Muhammad Ali a memorable brand and another world title-holder, Chris Eubank, a bizarrely dressed laughing stock? And just what is it that makes Usain Bolt so unquestionably magnetic to brands compared to the blandness of the Brownlee brothers?
In my view, branding is the process of managing identity and perception and is ultimately based on content. This can be broken down into brand attributes or values. In the case of personality brands these values have a lot to do with authenticity and something that is larger than life. Above all a personality brand is someone that we can all engage with.
So, after the recent Tour De France and with Britain poised for cycling success at the Rio Olympics, let’s take a look at two world class cyclists and ask why one has most definitely become a brand and the face of British cycling and the other… well… a nice chap who gets pee thrown at him!
Enter Sir Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome OBE.
Let’s begin by doing a quick compare and contrast. Wiggins, just like Andy Murray, has a slight advantage over being ‘the first’. For proof, look at Fred Perry’s ‘brand’ and commercial appeal, which has lasted well over 70 years, and well beyond his actual lifetime. Both Wiggins and Froome are exemplary athletes at the top of their game; both have won the Tour De France, (Wiggo being the first Englishman to do so without the help of drugs) and Froome achieving this no less than three times. Both are riders in the aggressive and go-getting Team Sky.
And that is where the similarities run out.
In an X-Factor world, where the salt-of-the-earth can be elevated to instant stardom, ‘Wiggo’ is without doubt a man of his times. Even those of us whose last bike experience was whizzing around on our BMX were elated when the Kilburn lad won the Tour De France. Arguably, that one victory made him a greater ambassador for Britain than the string of Olympic Golds that preceded it. In that Tour Wiggins was the outsider, the underdog, and even the French applauded to see him wearing the famous yellow jersey.
Now, throw in the fact that Wiggins neither looks or behaves like your average sportsman and we hit brand gold. There’s the moody machismo, the full sleeve tattoo, the long sideburns, the throwing down of his bike in disgust, the guitar playing, the searingly honest (usually involving a few expletives) banter with journalists and now the refusal to carry the British flag at the Olympics.
Arguably more rock star than sports star, Wiggo amounts to nothing short of cycling’s equivalent to Liam Gallagher. We know what this man stands for and it all adds up to a very strong brand image. Properly managed, constantly applied and articulated by those who can, like Simon Fuller’s management company X1X (where his stable mates include David Beckham and The Spice Girls) and you have a world-class brand that has already chalked up a lucrative relationship with Fred Perry.
Then, on the other hand we have Chris Froome. Chris is definitely not one of the lads. He is a brilliant athlete and will go on to achieve even greater things, but somehow we just don’t want to engage with this polite, self-effacing cyclist. He is the chalk to Bradley’s cheese and when you see the two side by side he positively exudes non-Wiggoness. Chris is unlikely to ever stand on a podium in the Champs Elysees and say, “we are about to draw the bingo numbers!” Of course, all of this doesn’t add up to him being humourless, it’s just that next to Wiggins this warrior athlete appears to be a bit… dull.
So, what do we learn from all this? For sportspeople, just like in the corporate world, brand image and reputation have as much to do with perception as they do with the obvious measurables. In other words, it’s as much about the intangibles as it is the tangibles. It’s almost impossible to build a personal brand if the ingredients are not right to begin with. Chris Eubank with his absurd monocle and Lord of the Manor outfits misses by a country mile. He is trying too hard and just lacks that natural rawness and believability that I mentioned earlier.
The elusive, and beyond measure, ‘halo effect’ that makes all successful brands fly is strong with Wiggo. I can see many brands beyond Fred Perry that he could happily hook-up with, products where his brand values fit like a glove, IrnBru and BrewDog spring to mind. But, when I think of possible brand partners for Froome, I can only come up with wet wipes, mineral water and Vaseline!
There is definite promise of successful ‘brand stretch’ with Wiggins. Like Virgin, which has been able to execute countless brand extensions, Wiggins could go in many directions. In fact, the comparison with Virgin is even more interesting when one considers the strong personal brand of Richard Branson: disruptive, stubborn, quixotic, brave, driven for quality, adventurous, a cheeky David flinging stones at Goliaths! Any of those qualities remind you of Wiggo?
However, every brand halo has a flip side and this is something that Wiggins needs to guard against. The moments where he gives the finger to journalists, or indeed rejects the offer of carrying his national flag at the opening ceremony of the Olympics, can do him and any possible prospects with commercial partners, potential damage.
Managing that ‘no angel’ aspect of Wiggins’ character may turn out to be a Herculean task, but one that Simon Fuller will have to address in order to fulfil his client’s rich potential. It’s my guess that Simon will be re-adjusting the halo more than a few times over the course of their relationship.
In the meantime, Wiggins may be nearing the end of his cycling career but he stands every chance of repeating his former gold medal triumphs at Rio and properly managed the brand will, most definitely, play on.