Every four years, the Olympics herald a major opportunity for competing athletes: the glory of victory, the agony of defeat and the promise of payday.
Along with millions of people around the world, marketers are tracking the performances at the Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro to see who could shine as a spokesmodel. Fashion and beauty executives are no exception.
“I really see opportunity there,” said Vinny Nesi, senior vice president of Iconix Brand Group’s men’s fashion division, who also works on its athletic brands, including Starter and Umbro. Some of the athletes he’s keeping an eye on are American beach volleyball players Kerri Walsh Jennings and April Ross (who settled for the bronze in Rio). “I very much think the U.S. female athletes are role models,” he said.
Fashion brands’ interest in this year’s Summer Games could be growing due to the strengthening link between sports and the apparel industry, particularly with the seemingly endless growth of activewear.
Who can identify the sport that Pita Nikolas Aufatofua was competing in at the Rio 2016 Summer Olympics? It probably doesn’t matter because he’ll be forever remembered as the oiled-up, shirt-off flag bearer for Tonga. Even if he doesn’t win a medal, he could snare an endorsement. “It’ll probably be on the cheesier side of things than a prestigious commercial,” said Andy Hohl, who manages athletes such as Laird Hamilton at Artist & Brand Management in Los Angeles.(Semansky/AP/REX/Shutterstock / Semansky/AP/REX/Shutterstock)
Having won two gold medals and a bronze at the London 2012 Summer Olympics, Aly Raisman arrived at this year’s games in Rio with endorsements from Aeropostale and other brands. With her natural charm, as seen in a silly selfie taken after the women’s team won the gold medal, she could be on her way to add more deals.(Julio Cortez/AP/REX/Shutterstock / Julio Cortez/AP/REX/Shutterstock)
Tying with Canada’s Penny Oleksiak in the 100-meter freestyle race, Simone Manuel made history — and turned out as a surprise star — when she became the first African-American women to win an individual swimming competition at the Olympics. The tears she shed over her victory endeared her to those watching.(Pisarenko/AP/REX/Shutterstock / Pisarenko/AP/REX/Shutterstock)
Aside from being recognized as the best American gymnast of all time and serving as a role model for North West, Simone Biles is on the verge of leaping into more ad campaigns. Tide and Hershey’s have already featured her in their TV commercials. A typical teenager, she loves playing with make-up and jewelry. As Andy Hohl, talent brand manager at Artist & Brand Management in Los Angeles, put it, “Now we live in an age where people look to knock people down for whatever reason. You can’t really knock her down at all. She’s a genuine person and has a bubbliness. It appeals to the masses.”(Shopland/BPI/REX/Shutterstock / Shopland/BPI/REX/Shutterstock)
Bros and Olympic champions, Ryan Lochte and Michael Phelps will always be. But as bankable frontmen for brands? The breakout star of the London 2012 Summer Olympics, Lochte snagged his own reality TV show and an ad campaign with Calvin Klein. His personality didn’t seem to resonate with the public, however. Phelps has lucrative deals with brands such as Under Armour. But his two past DUIs and leaked bong-smoking photos don’t make him the most squeaky clean spokesman.(Matt Slocum/AP/REX/Shutterstock / Matt Slocum/AP/REX/Shutterstock)
Laurie Hernandez made a splash at the Rio 2016 Summer Olympics with her effervescent personality and tumbling skills. With her Kewpie doll face accented expertly with cat-eye liner, big smile and curly locks, the Puerto Rican-American would be a catch for a beauty brand. “You want to keep your eyes open for the athlete who leaps off the stage,” said Daniel Durbin, director of USC Annenberg Institute of Sports, Media and Society the University of Southern California.(J. Perenson/CSM/REX/Shutterstock / J. Perenson/CSM/REX/Shutterstock)
The future is looking bright for 19-year-old Katie Ledecky. It’s not just the gold medals that she won at the Rio 2016 Summer Games. Andy Hohl, talent brand manager at Artist & Brand Management in Los Angeles, said, “I definitely think she’s going to pop after this Olympics.”(Shopland/BPI/REX/Shutterstock / Shopland/BPI/REX/Shutterstock)
Ronda Rousey confessed to having suffered a panic attack the day after she won a bronze medal in judo at the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics. She picked herself back up, and morphed into a successful UFC fighter and role model for women. For the past two years, she’s also served as a brand ambassador and unofficial jeans fit model for Buffalo David Bitton.(David Becker / Getty Images for Buffalo David B)
At 17, Sydney McLaughlin became the youngest athlete to make the American track and field Olympics team since 1972. The high school senior from New Jersey is also at the start of what could be a promising career as a celebrity spokesmodel. The honor of being named the Gatorade Female Athlete of the Year entailed the printing of her photo on the popular energy drink. She also smiled big in a floral minidress when she was singled out at this year’s ESPY Awards.(J. Phillip/AP/REX/Shutterstock / J. Phillip/AP/REX/Shutterstock)
Shaunae Miller and her aqua-tinted hair first walked across the small screen when she carried the flag for the Bahamas in the 2016 Rio Olympics’ opening ceremony. Her dive across the finish line in the 400-meter sprint earned her a gold medal and a memorable meme. Still, when it comes to building a fan following, a little meme can go a long way.(Matt Slocum/AP/REX/Shutterstock / Matt Slocum/AP/REX/Shutterstock)
Aeropostale had such faith in Aly Raisman, who had won multiple medals in the London 2012 Summer Games, that it unveiled her back-to-school denim ad in June, a month before she made the women’s team destined for the Rio Games. In the teen clothing retailer’s campaign, she performed a floor routine in its stretchy denim.(PR NEWSWIRE)
Iconix Brand Group’s Vinny Nesi, who works on athletic brands such as Starter and Umbro, views beach volleyball players April Ross and Kerri Walsh Jennings as role models. “They’re not teenagers and they relate to every woman,” he said.(Jose Sanchez/AP/REX/Shutterstock / Jose Sanchez/AP/REX/Shutterstock)
Aéropostale appeared to have received the marketing memo early. The teen clothing retailer unveiled its back-to-school denim campaign featuring London gold medalist Aly Raisman in June, a month before the 22-year-old was named a returning member of the U.S women’s gymnastics team.
Completing a floor workout in Aéropostale’s stretchy jeans, Raisman is the latest Olympian to cross into fashion. Seven years ago, Nastia Liukin soared in an ad campaign for BCBG Max Azria after taking home the best all-around gymnast gold at the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing. Fresh off his athletic accomplishments in London in 2012, swimmer (and current Rio-robbery-mystery-man) Ryan Lochte ended up in a Calvin Klein campaign as well as in his own reality TV show.
Moreover, a gold medal isn’t always a prerequisite accessory. A bronze medal in diving at the London Games helped Britain’s Tom Daley to try his hand at modeling for Adidas’ youth-oriented Neo label.
“Coming out of the Olympics, if you’re hugely successful as an athlete, you become a celebrity brand,” said Daniel Durbin, director of USC Annenberg Institute of Sports, Media and Society. “That gives you a value to marketers — especially fashion marketers — as an athletic, exciting, accomplished, heroic kind of brand.”
Even with a gold medal, Olympians could be a bargain compared to other professional athletes. Take LeBron James, who jumped into the NBA straight out of high school in 2003, and has more than lived up to the hype. “He commands a huge amount of money for his services and merchandising as most athletes who have been on the stage for any time do,” Durbin said. Indeed, in Forbes’ 2016 rankings of the 100 highest-paid celebrities, James’ $77 million in earnings and endorsements qualified him for the 11th spot, ahead of Madonna and Roger Federer.
Olympic athletes have the opportunity to captivate consumers only once every four years. What they must remember, according to Durbin, is that “your value as a brand is the ability to command celebrity more than the ability to command performance on the field.”
Life out of the arena isn’t always easy. Ronda Rousey can attest to that. The day after she stepped off the podium with her bronze medal in judo at the Beijing Games, “I had a full-on anxiety attack because I was like, ‘What am I going to do with my life?’” she recalled. “As soon as it’s over, it’s like, OK, life did not end. It’s happy but it’s not a happy ending. It’s a happy moment. The ending is still far away and you have to find something else to fill the rest of the story.”
Rousey managed to fill the next eight years by metamorphisizing into an Ultimate Fighting Championship star, an actress in movies such as “Entourage” and a denim model for Buffalo David Bitton. It’s no surprise that the 29-year-old’s successful career has been mentioned as a template for other female athletes in Rio.
“I’m happy to play that role if I can,” Rousey said. “It’s good to have examples of people who have made a career for themselves afterward with the skills that they learned at the Olympics.” After all, she’s aware that even the fittest are susceptible to what she dubbed post-Olympic depression. “You have to go back to the real world and you realize that you have no work experience because you’ve been training your whole life, you don’t have much of an education because you’ve been training your whole life, and there isn’t a single employer out there that cares that you have an Olympic medal.”
Olympians must capitalize on their value quickly. Andy Hohl, talent brand manager at Artist & Brand Management in Los Angeles, repeated a saying uttered by Jordyn Wieber, a member of the U.S. women’s gymnastics team that garnered gold in London: Olympic athletes have two years to make as much money as they can. He expected the “Final Five” gymnasts from the Rio Games to see deals that are valued at six and seven figures.
Speculation is mounting about which beauty brand will nab U.S. gold medal winner Simone Biles, complete with her glittery eyeshadow, as a spokeswoman. Some in the beauty industry predict that Procter & Gamble’s Cover Girl will score an affiliation with her. During the broadcast which showed the 19-year-old as the best female gymnast in the world, Tide and Hershey’s aired commercials highlighting her all-American appeal. Her grandparents attested to her being a typical American teenager. “She loves girly stuff,” Nellie Biles said in a short NBC biography introducing her granddaughter on prime-time TV. “She loves to shop and she loves to get her nails done, her hair done. She loves to feel pretty.”
An analyst speaking to The Houston Chronicle estimated that Biles could reel in more than $3 million in endorsements in the coming months. But the biggest windfall for her, and for her fellow Olympic athletes, could happen when brands rev up for the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo.
“We will see [Biles] come back in four years and compete again, and she will be one of the go-to athletes for commercials in 2020,” said Bob Williams, chief executive officer of Evanston, Ill.-based Burns Entertainment & Sports Marketing. He continued, “Advertisers are being proactive prior to the games and, now, it is about setting up for four years from now and who may be on the list for the next Summer Games.”
Plus, Williams singled out 17-year-old hurdler Sydney McLaughlin as an athlete on the rise who could be attractive to beauty brands in the future. The high school senior walked the red carpet at this year’s ESPY Awards, and recognition as Gatorade’s Female Athlete of the Year included bottles of the popular energy drink plastered with her photogenic profile. “She’s likely to be back in four years and has the kind of face that a beauty company would be very interested in,” he said.
Hohl, who works with pro athletes Gabrielle Reece and Laird Hamilton, has his own list of American athletes to watch but he looks up to Biles. “You can’t really knock her down at all,” he said. “She’s a genuine person and has a bubbliness. It appeals to the masses.”
As for mutiple-gold-winning swimmer Katie Ledecky, “I definitely think she’s going to pop after this Olympics,” he said. Even Pita Taufatofua, who is best-known as Tonga’s oiled-up, shirt-off flag bearer during the opening ceremony, could ink a deal. “It’ll probably be on the cheesier side of things than a prestigious commercial,” he said.
Simone Manuel, who made history as the first African-American woman to win an individual swimming event at the Olympics, “could be the surprise star of these Olympic games,” he said. “Her personality is relatable to the public and brands will for sure be looking to partner with her.”
Having a winning personality is vital. A cautionary tale is Lochte, who finally became a breakout during the London Olympics, despite his previous wins in Athens and Beijing. Then his prospects out of the water fizzled. “You can have everything but if your personality isn’t there, people aren’t going to connect with you,” Hohl said.
A unique personal style is another way to connect through a small screen with an audience. Plenty of athletes have displayed their own twists on beauty. Michelle Carter, the first U.S. woman to capture a gold medal for shot put and founder of the makeup brand Shot Diva, sported red lips during her event and subsequent award ceremony, while swimmers including Dana Vollmer and Allison Schmitt have worn elaborately painted patriotic nails. Laurie Hernandez and the rest of the gymnastics squad have tumbled in sparkle-rimmed eyes, colored pouts, taut buns and high ponytails.
Rather than shy away from makeup, many athletes proudly use it and seek deals with beauty brands. For instance, Sweat Cosmetics works with Olympic sprinter Natasha Hastings, who dons blond hair, dark eyeliner and bright lips while running.
“Times are changing, and each Olympics we watch we see more and more athletes embrace their beauty and want to represent these beauty and cosmetic brands that they wear on a daily basis,” said Sweat Cosmetics chief marketing officer Leslie Osborne, a former professional soccer player and defensive midfielder on the U.S. women’s national soccer team.
For beauty brands, vibrant looks on commanding athletes encapsulate inspiring messages they want to convey. “I love watching all of these fearless, confident and athletic women competing this year,” Osborne said. “I love even more that they are able to rock their own self-expression, whether it’s their lipstick, sparkly eye shadow, bronzer or mascara. It’s empowering to see women be bold, beautiful and win gold medals.”
When the flame of the Summer Games’ torch is finally extinguished, the athletes don’t have to fall into a funk. They can heed Rousey’s advice as they vie for an endorsement. “Don’t be afraid to suck at something for a little while,” she said. “It’s worth the effort to start over and make a life after for yourself.”