Athletes as online brand builders - challenges and opportunities for marketers

Written by Jonas Schäfer


Purpose of this paper is to show how companies use athletes to promote their products via social media and how they enhance their brand equity. Athletes have high awareness and, in best case, a positive image in the public. Famous athletes already created their own social media strategy to enhance their own person´s brand equity. Companies (Sponsors) use this to first, promote their products to a wider target group, second to interact with the consumer and get help in creation of products or marketing campaigns, and third to transfer the positive brand equity of the athlete on to the company.

1.    Introduction

Social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter or Google+ are spread out in our everyday private and business lives (Zauner, Koller & Fink, 2012). The developments in digital media have revolutionized marketing, and social media has fundamentally changed the role of marketer´s influence (Hanna, Rohm & Crittenden, 2011). Today consumers want to interact, share thoughts, opinions, criticisms and suggestions, they want a dialogue instead of a monologues from the brand (Armelini & Villanueva, 2009). Social media platforms are a perfect way to fulfill this need. Companies use social media not only to interact with the customer, but also to use him as a co-producer of products and marketing messages. Furthermore branding strategies are adapted to the new environment. In line with Vargo & Lusch (2004), branding on the internet means to participate and co-create and does not mean to control the message sent out as in traditional media channels.

Famous athletes are using social media platforms to connect and interact with their fans (Yan, 2011) and companies are using it more and more to leverage their sponsorship. Millan & Ball (2012) investigated this issue for sponsoring of sporting events. But there is only little theory about athlete branding and their actions on social media platforms. Furthermore there is a gap in the literature how companies acting as athlete sponsors can activate their sponsorships in the digital media. I will address this issue by presenting a case study of tennis star Roger Federer who is actively promoting products from his sponsors in a genuine way on his social media platforms.

In the following paper I will first present a theoretical framework consisting of branding in an online environment, brand equity of athletes, sponsoring and their implementation through social media. Consecutively I will show a case study of tennis player Roger Federer and his social media activities, mainly Facebook. Here I will investigate how he uses his huge fan potential together with his sponsors to interact with consumers, promote products and consequently tries to enhance his and his sponsors brand equity. In addition I will identify the opportunities and challenges for marketers by using an athlete´s social media platform.

2.    Theory

2.1  Branding online

There are dramatic changes going on in marketing and branding due to the fast technological development of the digital media. Armelini & Villanueva (2009) argues that companies do not exist in consumer´s mind without being active in social media. He furthermore states that “social network marketing has made traditional media obsolete”. Brands should build a connection with their costumer and foster “a sense of belonging through the engagement itself” (Engeseth, 2005).  Social media activities satisfy according to Engeseth (2005) a need: the desire of engagement with a brand they wish to be associated with. While people participate and interact with the brand, they can become involved and therefore can identify with it.  Command and control, usually the aim of brand managers in traditional media channels is not appropriate anymore online (Christodoulides et al., 2006). But the goal remains the same: to enhance brand equity (Aaker, 1991), positive brand associations and perceived quality of the brand.

2.2 Brand equity of athletes

Building brand equity is an important part of brand building, and generates value to the firm through greater consumer loyalty, awareness, and image (Keller, Aperia & Georgson, 2012).  According to Keller, Aperia & Georgson (2012) persons are also brands and as strong brand equity starts with brand awareness and positive brand image successful athletes can build the aspired goal of strong brand equity. This can consequently be enhanced through social media by athletes as they managed to use it to broadcast to their fans, bypassing the press (Yan, 2011). Fans feel connected when their idol is talking to them directly (Yan, 2011).

2.3 Sponsoring and the implementation online

Cliff & Motion (2004) found that sponsorships could be used as central driver for brand strategy and provide added value to the consumer. Sponsorships allow firms to leverage the brand equity assets (awareness, loyalty, perceived quality and associations) by linking themselves to the sponsored object (Meenaghan, 2001). Through sponsorships, firms are able to exploit relationships in order to create loyalty to their own brand (Sirgy Et al., 2008). Sponsorship is regarded as a powerful vehicle, which is used by firms to build brand equity (Farrelly, Quester and Greyser, 2005). While usually sponsoring activities are used in traditional media, the development of new technologies and the increase in consumer engagement in social networks led to an increase of sponsoring activities through social media. According to Zauner, Koller & Fink (2012) a company engaging on the Facebook fansite of a celebrity sports team that it is sponsoring the social media might help to increase the company´s brand perception by consumers. Hence, integrating sports sponsorship and marketing activities via specific fan groups on social media platforms can be of advantage especially regarding the company’s brand image and the perceived brand value (Zauner, Koller & Fink, 2012).


3.    Case Study Roger Federer

Roger Federer is perceived as the greatest Tennis player of all time and has an impressive endorsement portfolio in sports, with nine sponsors that collectively pay him more than $30 million annually, including long-term deals with Nike, Rolex, Wilson and Credit Suisse (Forbes, 2012). Furthermore he is according to a study conducted in 2011 the second most respected, admired and trusted individual in the world (Waterson, 2011). These facts can lead to the conclusion that he has a high brand equity which combines brand image and awareness (Keller, Aperia & Georgson, 2012). His partnerships are based on mutual advantages as both parties use their respective awareness and image to maintain and enhance brand equity.

Roger Federer has currently around 12 Mio fans on Facebook (2013a), 33000 followers on Twitter (2013b) and an own Youtube channel (2013c). In this paper I will mainly focus on Facebook, especially with an emphasis on his sponsor´s activities.

Previous to the Australian Open in January 2013, Roger Federer asked his fans on Facebook which shoe he should wear and which color the laces should have. To participate the consumer was linked directly to Nike´s tennis Facebook page where more features and products can be found. The consumer was asked to interact and co-create the product. Furthermore it attracted awareness as the consumer had the impression to influence the outfit of his idol.


Another example of participation and co-creating is Mercedes Benz who used Roger Federer´s Facebook page in order to ask his fans to choose the headline for a new marketing campaign. "It was completely free - it cost us absolutely nothing," says Steve Cannon, vice president of marketing. "In the old world, I would have just gone with my favorite" (Kurylko, 2011). With such activities Nike or Mercedes gained important product feedback, important insights into marketing decisions and high awareness for the brand itself.

Source: Facebook screenshot (Federer, 2013a)

Source: Facebook screenshot (Federer, 2013a)

Besides co-creation and participation several brands are promoted through his social media channels. In December 2012 Federer made an Excibition-Tour through South-America, which was sponsored and named by the company Gilette (Gilette Federer Tour). On Facebook pictures and stories were uploaded and his own Youtube-Channel was promoted where it was possible to watch the Exhibition-Matches for free. Furthermore continuously several videos and pictures of his partners are posted on Facebook, such as product launches of a new Tennis racket, pictures of Roger Federer in which the company congratulates him to achieve a new record or the making-of new advertisements in which Roger Federer is participating.


4.    Discussion

The case study of Roger Federer shows impressively how an athlete can use social media platforms to interact with his consumers (fans). Furthermore companies which act as sponsors can use these athlete´s social media platforms to promote their products and interact with consumers. Moreover it is shown that branding on the internet exemplifies participation and co-creation of meaning (Vargo & Lusch, 2004).

As Sponsoring is not a new topic, companies use athletes for their marketing activities since years. However the communication of these sponsoring activities through social media is still in its infancy even though companies realized the importance of social media in branding and marketing. In general one can mention that the activation of sponsorships via social media is an efficient way and should be included in the marketing activities.

However there are several challenges marketer´s are facing when using social media platforms of athletes for their branding activities.

First, there is no certainty about which activities might be effective (Zauner, Koller & Fink, 2012). Even though it is possible to evaluate the success of an activity with the help of “likes” and positive comments on Facebook, reliable measurements about brand recognition, awareness or image are difficult to conduct as the metrics in the internet are more diffuse (Armelini & Villanueva, 2009).

Secondly even if according to Millan & Ball (2012) social media offers the opportunity to target the costumer better, the social media platform of the athlete can have a different target group than the activity of the sponsors is aiming at. Therefore it is of high importance for the sponsor to select the athlete carefully and compare his image and his target with one´s own (Zauner, Koller & Fink, 2012). Furthermore an athlete with such a strong brand equity as Roger Federer possesses is not easy to find and usually quite expensive. There are several examples of successful stars not having this broad fan base, especially not on social media platforms.

Thirdly there is always the danger that a person is related to a scandal which can damage the reputation which can consequently be transferred on the company. One example is Tiger Woods who acknowledged marital infidelity in 2009 and lost several sponsors (Kelley, 2009). Lastly one has to mention that brand managers who used to control the brand has become just a host whose main role is to facilitate the sharing (Christodoulides, 2009). Hence consumers now have more control over content which can also result in negative attitudes towards a brand which spreads virally (Millan and Ball, 2012). 

5.    Conclusion

The development from traditional to new media forced companies to adapt their marketing and branding strategies to the new environment. Even though the brand manager loses control while interacting with the consumer through social media channels, it offers great advantages for both consumer and firm. The activation of a sponsorship in order to use the athlete´s social media platforms is a further opportunity to communicate with a broad audience, given the consumer the option to co-create and participate in product developments and transfer the positive emotions and brand image of the athlete to the company. The case study of Roger Federer is a perfect example of successful interaction through sponsoring and social media.

However there are some limitations. One cannot answer the question if the sponsoring companies can enhance their brand equity through these activities. Further detailed research is necessary to prove that. Moreover further investigation is needed if these activities can also be used in different settings as Roger Federer is an extreme example. Not all successful athletes might be suitable to use social media for the mentioned purposes.






Aaker, D. A.  (1991), Managing brand equity: capitalizing on the value of a brand name. New York: Free Press, 1991. 

Armelli, G. & Villanueva, J. (2011), Adding social media to the marketing mix, IESE insight, No. 9.

Chen, A.C‐H. (2001), Using Free association to examine the relationship between the characteristics of brand associations and brand equity, Journal of Product & Brand Management, 10 (7), 439-451.

Cliff, S.J. & Motion, J. (2004), Building Contemporary Brands: a sponsorship‐based strategy, Journal of Business Research, 58, 1068‐1077

Christodoulides, G., de Chernatony, L., Furrer, O. & Abimbola, T. (2006), Conceptualising and Measuring the Equity of Online Brands. Journal of Marketing Management 22 (7 and 8): 799–825.

Chrisodoulides, G. (2009), Branding in the post-internet era. Marketing Theory, 9, 141.

Engeseth, S . ( 2005 ), One: A Consumer Revolution in Business. London: Cyan – Marshall Cavendish.

Farrelly, F. & Quester, P. & Greyser S. A. (2005), Defending the Co‐Branding Benefits of Sponsorship B2B Partnerships: The case of Ambush Marketing. Journal of Advertising, 9, 339‐348.

Federer, R. (2013a). Federer [Facebook]. Available from: [Accessed 2 February 2013]

Federer, R. (2013b). FedererOfficial. [Twitter]. Available from: [Accessed 2 February 2013]

Federer, R. (2013c). Roger Federer Tennis Channel. [video online] Available at: [Accessed 2 February 2013].

Federer, R. (2013a). Federer Facebook [image online]. Available from: [Accessed 2 February 2013]

Federer, R. (2013b). Federer Facebook [image online]. Available from: [Accessed 2 February 2013 

Federer, R. (2013c). Roger Federer Tennis Channel. [image online] Available at: [Accessed 2 February 2013].

Forbes (2012), Forbes. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 05 February 13].

Hanna, R., Rohm, A. & Crittenden, V. (2011), We’re all connected: the power of the social media ecosystem. Business Horizons, 54, 265-273.

Keller, K., Aperia, T., Georgson, M. (2012), Strategic Brand Management (2nd edition), Essex, England; Pearson Education Limited 

Kelley, B. (2009), [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 05 February 13].

Kurylko, DT. (2011), Federer's Facebook fans help Mercedes top off an ad. Automotive News, 85, 6462, p. 40, Business Source Complete, EBSCOhost, viewed 29 January 2013. 

Meenaghan, T. (2001), Understanding Sponsorship Effects. Psychology & Marketing, 18 (2), 95–122.

Millan, A., Ball, M., (2012), The use of social media as a tool for consumer brands to leverage sponsorship of sporting events: A qualitative Analysis. International Journal of Sales, Retailing and Marketing Vol. 1 No. 4, 27-38

Sirgy, MJ., Lee, DS., & Johar, JS., & Tidwell, J., (2008), Effect of self-congruity with sponsorship on brand loyalty. Journal of Business Research, 61 (10), 1091‐1097.

Vargo, SL. & Lusch, RF., (2004), Evolving to a New Dominant Logic for Marketing. Journal of Marketing, 68, January, 1–17.

Yan (2011) , Social media in branding: Fulfilling a need. Journal Of Brand Management, 18, 9, pp. 688-696, Business Source Complete, EBSCOhost, viewed 30 January 2013. 

Waterson, J., (2011). Tennis Now. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 05 February 13].

Zauner, A., Koller, M., & Fink, M., (2012), SPONSORING, BRAND VALUE AND SOCIAL MEDIA. RAE: Revista De Administração De Empresas, 52, 6, pp. 681-691, Business Source Complete, EBSCOhost, viewed 4 February 2013.