Yesterday cereal giant Kellogg’s ended its endorsement contract with Michael Phelps following the publication of a photo of the swimmer apparently smoking marijuana through a bong at a party several months ago. According to a company spokesperson, Phelps’ behavior “isn’t consistent with our image.” While that may be true, it is also true that Kellogg’s decision will affect its image as well. The question is, will it enhance or detract from that image?
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Of course, the answer will be different for different consumers. Some will no doubt applaud the company for its “ethical”, law-abiding stance. Others will criticize the company for its intolerance in abandoning an endorser who made, and has apologized for, a mistake. Still others will question why the company did not make a similar decision when Phelps was arrested for drunken driving–arguably a more serious offense–four years ago.
Interestingly, as of today Kellogg’s (for whom I worked as a Marketing Director in the 1980s) is the only sponsor to drop Phelps. Clearly, those other sponsors (including Speedo) are also affecting their respective images with their decisions. So who made the right decision? It’s possible they all did. In other words, it could be that demonstrating their support for “ethics” and the law will reinforce Kellogg’s image, while demonstrating tolerance and perhaps even a “maverick” attitude will reinforce Speedo’s image. On the other hand, perhaps Kellogg’s or the other companies have misread their consumers, which would mean that they don’t understand their brand equity as well as they thought.
It’s a tough call, and one that’s easy to play Monday morning quarterback on. For what it’s worth, I think that the right call for all of Phelps’ sponsors was to stay by him and encourage him to make sure this mistake doesn’t get repeated. However, I would also make it clear to Mr. Phelps that–to borrow a metaphor from another sport–”Three strikes and you’re out.”
What would you have done if you were an executive at one of Phelps’ sponsors?