How Can Marketers Get the Most Out of NFL Player Endorsements? Try Speed Dating

Creating an authentic partnership that consumers can relate to

(L. to r.) Raiders RB Josh Jacobs, Texans CB Lonnie Johnson Jr. and Patriots DE Chase Winovich took part in the Chosen event. Mayur Phadtare

In this day and age, a simple swipe right or left is all that’s needed to make a connection. But for brands looking to make a lasting partnership with prospective endorsers like Kyler Murray, the top overall pick in the NFL Draft last month, an evening of old-fashioned speed dating ignited potentially fruitful relationships.

The day before players’ lives changed forever in the NFL Draft, agency The Marketing Arm invited over a dozen brands, many of which are TMA and Omnicom clients and included companies like Hyundai, Nike and Skittles, to spend roughly five minutes with 20 of the most marketable future NFL stars at The Marketing Arm’s Chosen event in Nashville, Tenn.

Jeff Chown, CEO, entertainment at TMA, said the agency created the event, which is now in its second year, because it connects over 300 athletes with brands each year. “If we can educate players at their infancy of coming into this business and educate the brands on what some of these players are like, we make it better for everyone,” Chown said.

During the evening, brands revealed to the players what they’re looking for in endorsers and also shared tips on how companies should choose and use athletes to market their products to the next generation of consumers. Most importantly, marketers want to tell better stories and players, who authentically connect with the brand and are pillars in their communities, help them achieve that goal.

Marketers from DirecTV, Mars Petcare, Pizza Hut and Procter & Gamble all keyed in on one element of choosing an endorser: The relationships have to be authentic with a genuine connection to the brand or else the brand won’t create credible moments with fans.

“Five or six years ago, having the star power in your commercials was enough,” said Rachel Meyer, director, brand marketing at Pizza Hut. “Today, customers are looking for stuff that’s a little more real and authentic.”

Broncos TE Noah Fant meets with DirecTV. Fant used the Chosen event to learn what brands want out of endorsers.
Mayur Phadtare

Janet Fletcher, director, Olympics and sports marketing at P&G, pointed to Jake Olson, a blind long snapper who overcame his disability to play football at the University of Southern California, telling his story for a Head & Shoulders spot as an example. “When you think about the ‘Headstrong’ campaign, where you fight through to achieve your dream, his story was pretty authentic,” Fletcher said.

For Pizza Hut, Meyer said finding players who light up when reminiscing about childhood memories of pizza nights allows the brand to better connect with consumers. To remind consumers that families congregate around the Pizza Hut brand, Meyer said the brand invited Los Angeles Chargers strong safety Derwin James and his father to make pizza in its test kitchen with its head chef during the 2018 NFL Draft. In a separate execution, Pizza Hut re-created a family pizza night during a Monday Night Football game with Los Angeles Rams running back Todd Gurley.

Mars Petcare, which encompasses brands like Iams, Pedigree and Sheba, looks for areas outside of just ads to incorporate athletes into its marketing. One example, according to Lisa Campbell, director of external affairs at Mars Petcare, is that whenever Pedigree expands its Better Cities for Pets initiative, the brand looks for hometown heroes, like Tennessee Titans cornerback Logan Ryan, who shares Pedigree’s mission to improve the lives of pets with his Ryan Animal Rescue Foundation.

When choosing to work with an athlete, brands need to consider a number of factors. Fletcher said she looks for longevity, explaining that the brand saw the staying power in former Pittsburgh Steeler Troy Polamalu and his lush head of hair, which P&G insured for $1 million in a marketing stunt. Furthermore, just as brands want to cut through advertising’s clutter, Meyer said Pizza Hut wants endorsers who will be focused on their relationships with the brand and not have to compete for their time with dozens of other marketers.

Jamie Dyckes, avp, video marketing sports and apps at AT&T, said brands must guard against being overpowered by the talent. “Brand recall in a commercial, for example, should be top of mind,” he warned, “and the athlete should reinforce that narrative and enhance the brand’s message, not muffle it.”

Athletes and marketers attending the Chosen event agreed that players need to be educated about representing a brand. Chown said players don’t understand how rigorous the process is partly because the NFL provides training for finances and other life skills, but not for brand relationships. On the flip side, Ryan explained that brands too often view football players as just athletes, forgetting that—as he puts it—“I’m going to be a husband and a father much longer than I’ll be a football player.”

This story first appeared in the May 6, 2019, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.