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Building brand bite: why Tiger Woods and Luis Suarez show brand managers should embrace bad news

By Lewis Blackwell

April 24, 2013 | 6 min read

There's a cheeky new Nike campaign for Tiger Woods that has the headline 'Winning Takes Care of Everything'.

'Don't win normally and expect acclaim'

I beg to differ. Winning is never enough, marketing-wise.

We don't have to look too closely at naughty old Tiger for insight into this. We have some fresh lessons from errant football (or soccer, as American readers may prefer to call it).

The sight of Luis Suarez of Liverpool sinking his teeth into a Chelsea player, Branislav Ivanovic, is one stirring brand message, while sober reflection is needed from marketeers on the value of Celtic winning the SPL at a canter and to little acclaim, as their arch-rivals Rangers (banished this year to Purgatory/Division Three, due to financial collapse) continue to be a more interesting investment proposition as they puff and blow to haul themselves back from oblivion.

Liverpool's marketing and PR machine will be swinging from success to failure and back again over the coming weeks as Suarez gets penalised a few times and then, perhaps, is later sold or gets a new contract (for vast amounts either way). What I assume they will be tracking too, is how all this bad news is actually rather good news for the overall brand-value. Liverpool sorely need something to stimulate headlines and a kind of sordid sexy glamour. Suarez's combination of great footballing talent with regular acts of appalling misbehaviour is worth every penny he is paid in terms of return on investment, even if it is not a good lesson for young football followers.

The bitten Chelsea defender is going to look a bit moany if he doesn't man-up and accept that a violent and stupid physical attack on the pitch is just part of the modern game. It's great entertainment! There's little chance of it helping make money for the London side, but up on Merseyside I wouldn't be at all surprised if they sell out of the Suarez shirt.

And then to the Scottish Premier League. Now tell me, which is more interesting, Celtic drifting along to another championship or Rangers battling it out with the part-timers in Division Three, occasionally dropping points in places even a Scot has difficulties placing on the map? Business wise, Celtic are doing OK but they miss the Old Firm enemy. Rangers, having been through death and out again, have a brand that is vibrantly alive, writing an exotic new chapter in its history and, as they thrash their way back out of the depths, they can do so without the burden of old crushing debts. It's hardly an ideal situation but they have been reborn with a brand inheritance and a new momentum that the administrators could not get their hands on. They're going places, whereas Celtic is doing more of the same.

To sum it up, Liverpool has for once leapfrogged the richly dysfunctional Chelsea in our awareness, all thanks to bad behaviour, while Rangers is building a richer brand story than Celtic, despite the latter having a very good season in the orthodox manner.

There is a challenging lesson for all brand managers in this. It is that bad news is so much more engaging than good news. That's a basic rule for newsrooms everywhere, but PR departments often fight shy of embracing it. Breaking social codes, breaking the law, behaving in morally deplorable ways – these are all immensely powerful things to do to catch attention in a really compelling way. Of course, you are playing with dynamite and it can destroy your brand as easily as build it. But just Being Good can often look like Being Boring. You might wish it wasn't so, but it is.

That's why naughty exploitative advertising campaigns get made and often work without any comeback. Look at history. FCUK was brilliant for a while in its elevation of the French Connection brand, until such time as it suddenly looked very stale and could no longer cover up the inadequate product offering. And Oliviero Toscani's provocations on almost every sensitive issue helped build the Benetton brand to global recognition until the Death Row campaign tweaked middle America sensibilities too much and finally caused real collateral damage to the business (Sears pulled out of its US distribution deal, thereby closing off a massive revenue opportunity).

The emotional hook of bad news brings us back to those marketing maestros at Nike. They took a long-time on their decisions before stepping away from the disaster zone of the doper Lance Armstrong, and also only reluctantly moved into the shadows for a while when sponsoring the adulterer Tiger Woods. Now they have him back in the spotlight – new improved Tiger, not just a winner, but a naughtier, sexier winner! There he is back at number one with a fit new blonde on his arm, while dropping his balls in the wrong place at the Masters stimulated headlines that his putter could not deliver.

The fact is that winning is not enough in sport and perhaps in life. Winning is often too good. It needs to be dirtied up a bit. It is rather obvious that somebody has to win and therefore it doesn't of itself make for a compelling emotional connection. For brands, emotional attachment is what it is all about so don't be fooled into backing any winners. You have to pick out the winners that interest us, or even back the losers if they are more attractive. You have to win brilliantly, or win dirty, or win tragically, win sexily, or lose with style and a sob story. For heaven's sake, don't win normally and expect acclaim.

Luis Suarez - overpaid, violent, and perhaps racist footballer that you have been shown to be - thank you for the life and business reminder. In the continuing absence of a Marketing God, able to dispense sound justice, you are the truth.


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