Last week, international tennis star Maria Sharapova called for a press conference, the agenda of which left many guessing. Many assumed the 28-year-old player was going to announce her retirement from the sport that she has been playing since she was four. But unfortunately, her fans were in for a bigger shock. As it turned out, Sharapova failed a doping test, which if she is to be believed, was through a major oversight on her part. She claims she has b e e n taking meldonium (or mildronate as it is also known as) for the last 10 years and wasn’t aware of its inclusion in the list of banned drugs for athletes at the start of this year.
Sharapova could be facing a minimum ban of four years, a punishment that can be lessened if the jury decides her error was genuine. The final verdict, however, will take at least a couple of months to be official. No doubt, a nerve-wracking time for the five-time Grand Slam winning champ.
What immediately followed, however, was three of the world’s biggest brands dropping Sharapova from their list of brand ambassadors. Nike, with whom the tennis star has her own clothing line, immediately suspended its relationship with Sharapova, at least for the duration of the investigation. Swiss brand Tag Heuer decided not to renew its contract with her, while the luxury car-maker ‘postponed any planned activities’. Quite surprisingly, however, racquet brand Head has planned to extend its deal with her, as a show of solidarity for being brave enough to acknowledge her fault. But that’s just one brand extending support so far.
While it is evident why a brand would look at distancing itself from an ambassador who has had a run-in with controversy, Sharapova’s case appears to have a lot of grey areas. If one were to assume her innocence, is the hasty action taken by her brands a calculated move or a panic attack?
Sumit Bedi, VP, marketing at IndiaMART strongly feels this is completely a function of panic and haste, reminiscent of Snapdeal’s handling of Aamir Khan’s ‘intolerance’ controversy. “During a situation like this, brand managers should wait and trust the judiciary and in this case, the tennis federation, before taking any calls. There are many aspects that need to be investigated before a conclusive decision can be taken. Ultimately this person is also an individual, and should be supported depending on the situation,” he says.
Unfortunately for Sharapova and other celebrities caught in such sticky situations, this is the flipside to multimillion dollar endorsement deals: the agreement that the celebrity will remain beyond reproach.
Ajay Kakar, chief marketing officer – financial services at Aditya Birla Group, believes that this is just the nature of the beast. For a brand’s image, the adage ‘Innocent until proven guilty’ holds no water. “When it comes to the world of brands, we are talking about perceptions and emotions. Perceptions and emotions of your (mass) customers. And many a marketer will prefer to believe in the philosophy of ‘play safe, rather than be sorry.'”
One thing is for certain. A brand and its endorsee definitely don’t share a relationship of equals. As brand consultant Harish Bijoor puts it, “While brands command complete loyalty from their endorsers, they need not necessarily in return be completely loyal. This is a business really. The one who pays the big bucks calls the shots. And all this is written in agreements that are signed and exchanged.”
Like most things these days, brand reactions can be blamed on the internet. Social and online media can amplify any controversy, and brands are wary of these. Nike in particular has often been at the centre of controversy for failing to sever ties with or adequately condemn (with the severity expected by an online lynch mob) some of its controversial brand ambassadors like Lance Armstrong and Oscar Pistorius, and so can’t be entirely faulted for erring on the side of caution this time. Bijoor believes that it is completely acceptable for brands to shield themselves from their names being dragged through the mud: “Decisive and quick action is the best action. Just suspicions are enough.”
There are many, like Bedi, who believe that brands ride on celebrities’ popularity and achievements. Dropping them like a ton of bricks at the face of adversity could be looked at as a mockery of the partnership and synergy, aspects that brand owners go out of their way to crow about when the ink is fresh on the deals they’ve struck. But then, as they say, paisa bolta hai. And when it happens to be millions and millions of paisa, it unfortunately happens to talk a lot more.