At the University of Toronto Sports and Business Association Sports Industry Conference last week, Gerald Woodman of the Adidas Group talked about the brand position of Adidas and how they are not selling sneakers, shirts, or whatever comes next. They are selling the lifestyle that comes with it, and the feelings and emotions evoked when you interact with these products. It was a different view at marketing, and one of the more memorable presentations from the conference. However, a large part of the presentation was about Lionel Messi and how important he is to Adidas and what they stand for.
Lionel Messi is widely considered to be the best soccer player in the world. His achievements at Barcelona are piling up at an alarming rate. He is just 25, and it makes one wonder, where can it go from here? His goal scoring rate is unmatched, his individual winner’s medals are numerous, and at just 25 years of age, Messi already has a career many would be happy to finish with. To think he has probably 3-5 more years of his prime left, then 3 more years as a large contributor before he moon lights or retires is scary to think about. Maybe Messi takes a Ryan Giggs type career and just plays forever. Then the numbers really get scary.
This excellence at soccer from a team and individual perspective is what draws endorsers to Messi. It is why Adidas has made him the face of their brand. As Goodman spoke in Toronto about how Messi plays the game for the love of it, doesn’t dive, and plays with honour, I believed he was a great face for the brand. Then I thought about Canada, and where Messi lines up from an endorser perspective for the average Canadian. Major soccer events (Euro Cups, World Cups) seem to rate in the top 10 most watched sporting events in Canada. So in general, Canadians will watch soccer and pay attention to it. However, while on the surface this seems like a bonus for Messi, unfortunately his Argentina team is never playing in any of those games. Then I thought about his Barcelona team. It is not easy to watch La Liga games in Canada. The league itself is not heavily promoted here when compared with other soccer leagues like the Premier League. Therefore, I wondered if Adidas had miscalculated using Messi as the face of their brand in Canada.
From a sporting perspective, I believe the face of a brand in Canada should be a hockey player. However, that is a separate column. Adidas is also in a weird spot as they do not have a hockey division under the Adidas branding. So then what other athletes can they leverage? Andy Murray when he is winning gets a ton of TV time, however his personality does not correspond well with Canadians. Derek Rose plays a sport that is growing in Canada, but not playing in Canada hurts him. Their stable of athletes is kind of lacking for Canada. There aren’t a ton of athletes that spring to mind that have the ability to carry a brand in an entire country. So what is Adidas to do?
This is how we arrive at Messi being the face of the brand in Canada. They don’t have a natural star to promote here. Their main sport that will stimulate sales in Canada is either soccer or athletics. So instead of finding a new endorser to promote regionally in Canada, or entering a sport like hockey, you get Messi. They are taking their biggest star that should resonate for the Canadians they are trying to reach and forcing him upon us. If he is going to become that transcending star like other greats (Jordan, Tiger, Bolt, Gretzky, Ali, etc.) then he should be able to sell sneakers in country where his sport isn’t number one. Additionally, with the amount of money they are paying Messi, it’s a quick fix. Finally, and this will surprise a lot of Canadians, Canada doesn’t matter.
For Adidas, Canada is not a key battleground. I would assume for Nike, Adidas, Reebok, and all the major athletic brands, Canada kind of falls into place. If their sales plummet in the United States, or Europe, that effects their bottom line. In Canada, they probably hold steady, and that’s fine. These companies invest a reasonable amount of money into Canada, and get a reasonable return. They receive a bit of spill from their various American sponsorships (NBA, US Colleges, and some American athletes), and they do fine in Canada. So Messi then works as a quick fix. He should be big enough to sell product in Canada, he should be the type of attitude that fits with your brand, and consumers should be drawn to him. Sadly, Canada is odd, and this relationship doesn’t reach its full potential.
In the end, that’s fine for Canada. We are used to getting weird hand-me-down marketing campaigns from other countries. Messi isn’t a Canadian icon, and may never be one. Then again, Canada doesn’t matter enough to Adidas to go find that Canadian icon. That’s fine, we get Messi, and we never really go “all in”, because Adidas hasn’t gone “all in” for us.
Jeffrey Lush is a weekly blog contributor to Sports Business Canada