Putting oneself in an athlete’s shoes

athlets blog post - M+M

Putting oneself in an athlete’s shoes

A young Israeli-Jewish boy goes on a school field trip to an austere Holocaust (mass destruction/slaughter of Jews in Germany) museum. He gets to know about the extremely callous Nazi ideology and remembers his grandfather who was a victim of that holocaust. He passes through each room – full of pictures depicting the plight of Jews in Nazi Germany before and during the Second World War. He gets back home and there’s a surprise gift for him waiting to be unpacked. The gift is his favourite pair of expensive Adidas shoes his doting parents got for him.

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India has seen greatest athletes and sportspersons of all time. We’ve seen Milkha Singh, Dhyan Chand, P.T. Usha, Karanam Malleswari, Anju Bobby George, Abhinav Bindra, Mary Kom and many others. They all have pushed boundaries to make it to the winner’s podium. And on a global stage, we talk about Muhammad Ali, Jack Dempsey, Michael Phelps, Birgit Fischer, Usain Bolt and other legends who have outperformed against all odds. Each has a success story. Each athlete earned all the attention s/he got at the winning moment. If we glance through history, we can learn that athletes have always been famous. The star status athletes and sports persons enjoy today is not a recent phenomenon. This is as old as sports itself.

Orsippus of Megara, an ancient Greek athlete won the stadion race of the 15th ancient Olympics in 720 B.C. He was the crowd’s favourite, and he was thought to be a great pioneer for being most likely the first ever athlete to run naked. Varazdat was an athlete from Armenia who won the Olympic Boxing tournament during the 291st Olympic Games. Although only men were allowed to compete in the Olympics initially, the rules have been rewritten later. Several women took part in the ancient games, and even won competitions. The most famous of these was Cynisca of Sparta, the first woman to win. On the other end, Milo of Croton was a wrestler who had won numerous tournaments in his long career. This tradition of celebrity-athletes continued and their charm never waned. Unlike any other time in history, athletes possess a great amount of value, following and money today. The reason was the post Second World War hunger. It is not an easy job for any athlete to outperform his/her competitors but how modern athletes kept their fame intact and leveraged it with an unbelievable monetary value is the question.

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In the 1940s, most sports events were cancelled because of the Second World War, which includes two Olympics. Not surprisingly, a number of athletes have served in the armed forces and fought for their countries. In the 1950s, sports like Baseball and Boxing were widely known and Hockey and Football were growing slowly. In the United States, Baseball and NBA gained the most attention at the time and the tournaments were aired on television. The beginning of 1960s witnessed the Pro Football leagues on television which was a huge success. On the other hand, Boxing bred a separate fan base for itself around the controversial and iconic figures Muhammad Ali and Cassius Clay. Later, the 1970 Olympics witnessed tragic terrorist attacks on Israeli participants. Nothing eventful happened for a decade after that and in 1980, Russia hosted the Olympics. In protest of Russia’s invasion in Afghanistan, 60 countries refused to participate that year. Until then, sports have been a matter of entertainment and valour and time has added business to it. Decades have passed since then and the world has seen the best of the best performers in every sport. Some sports gained unprecedented popularity and some have been completely ignored. Brands entered the stadium at this moment and created an industry that was struggling to take birth. In no time, brand associations have brought athletes closer to their fans. In a way, brands have packed and sold people’s favourite athletes and their successes in nicely designed boxes. Suddenly, the shoes worn by a famous NBA player or a celebrity-athlete became a novel piece of gear.

According to the branding consultant and professor David Aaker (1991, 1996), brand association is one of the four constructs of brand equity. The four constructs are – brand awareness, brand loyalty, perceived quality, and brand associations. In his model, brand associations were classified into four categories (product, organization, person, and symbol). In his framework, consumers associated product-related attributes (e.g., quality, usage situation, users, country of origin) organization-related attributes (e.g., innovation, culture), personality of the brand (e.g., fun, active, young, humorous, boring) and symbolic image or meaning of the brand (e.g., logo, endorser). Not all this seems unusual or merely theoretical if we know the history of Nike, Puma and Adidas.

It is said that Nike has not tied itself to a distinct identity with any country, not even America. However, Adidas has both German and American identities. Nike inspires individuals to become athletes and therefore sports individual iconic sportspersons and Adidas always captures the team spirit. Romanian Tennis star Nastase, Tiger Woods, Rafael Nadal, Michael Jordan and LeBron James were the prominent brand associates of Nike and the whole world knows who they are. On the other hand, it’s not that Adidas didn’t have individual players as brand associates, but it still is identified as a brand that gravitates team players. Here, it can be assumed without hesitation that the perceptual attributes (celebrity athlete, speed, victory) and functional attributes (durability, comfort) have worked their way in both cases and made inroads into the market giving each brand a sub-category to occupy. Like an example from the luxury automobile industry – Mercedes is to luxury as Land Rover is to performance – what comes to your mind when you are to choose between Nike and Adidas is just a walking history that crosses paths with your personality.

Rudolf and Adolf Dassler, the famous German brothers, made their first sneakers in the laundry room of their parents’ home. By 1927 their small company had grown to 12 employees and the brothers were forced to find other premises. Their big breakthrough came at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin when the athletes they associated with received seven gold medals and five silver and bronze medals. And then came the Second World War. After the war, the brothers parted ways establishing the brands Adidas and Puma. A couple of decades later, in the United States, came the Blue Ribbon Sports, now known as Nike. It was properly branded in 1972 and the products were designed and marketed by Phil Knight (founder) and Bill Bowerman (track-and-field coach). Even though Nike imported shoes from a Japanese brand initially, it eventually made its own products with the insights and inventions of Bill Bowerman.

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Now, if you see closely what international relations and the world wars have done to entrepreneurs in different parts of the world, you will hesitate to imitate the branding techniques used by the brands mentioned in here. First, Olympics gave birth to an upcoming brand in Germany and the war has split it into two (Adidas & Puma). The relation between Japan, Germany and America has created Nike and later the cold war had fueled entrepreneurship in the United States. None of these brands were created out of thin air. As every athlete has a different story, every athletic brand has one too. The resources they had, the markets they found and the innovation they exhibited were the only things that fetched them a recognition. So the next time you feel the urge to follow or imitate any of these brands, you might want to have a historic incident for you to draw inspiration or see your country at war. Not to overstate, but there were quite a number of brands, which followed in the footsteps of these pioneering companies and all they experienced is a pratfall. In the beginning, we quoted David Aaker. He talks about product-related attributes and organization-related attributes. Glance through the attributes that have been mentioned in the parentheses and instantly the timeline of a brand per se unfolds at your feet.

Only shoes were discussed in here, which makes only a small part of the big picture, because it is said – the rest [of the picture] is history.

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[Continued]
The boy opens the gift already knowing that his parents got him his favourite shoes. His mother tells the boy that she got him a good pair of expensive German shoes. With this, the boy reminds his mother that his grandfather is from Germany and the mother falls silent thinking about the horrific past. Then, the boy says to his mother that he is going out to play with his friends and puts on the shoes. While walking down the street and into the playground, all that the boy thinks about is his grandfather and the holocaust. He moves his feet carefully not to stamp too hard or heavy because he thinks his grandfather is in his shoes. Even while playing football, he kicks hesitatingly and carefully. At last, he kicks a tiebreaker and then feels more comfortable in his new shoes. By the end, he assumes that his old man in the shoes liked his last kick, and walks back home.

This is a short story by the Israeli writer Etgar Keret. It was first published in 2004 in an anthology named ‘The bus driver who wanted to be God & other stories’. This short story meanders through the many phases of history. It reminds us of the post world war inventions, global aspirations, brand aspirations, east meets west discussion, pain, memories and an optimistic future the then entrepreneurs envisioned. Before starting out as a brand, sensible entrepreneurs first learn where they are and what they have and then they move on to question who they are. The ‘who’ is the identity one builds over time. Therefore, building a brand identity is a historic event.

Indian cricket also had seen one of the longest and most respected brand associations that almost nudged a company to make a product that is far from their product line. This is the story of Sachin Tendulkar’s cricket bat with MRF (Madras Rubber Factory) sticker on it. Although MRF does not make cricket bats, kids would buy a fake bat with a fake MRF sticker just for the pleasure of perceptual attributes at the time. Thus and thus, how MRF leveraged Sachin’s batting stance and cover drives is a different story altogether.