Branding on social media — the Ronaldo way

It’s no surprise that social media has become the best, effective way to disseminate love and engage with fans. Every company, brand and celebrity understands the importance and impact of social media, not just connecting with their fans, but to make strategic alliances and business relationships as well. The general perception about social media is that it is a medium to leapfrog the traditional barriers in customer/fan engagement and create a direct ‘virtual’ bond. In reality, it’s a little more complicated than that. Although, many celebrities and athletes seem to be cracking codes to engage audiences (through their social media firms obviously!), there’s someone out there who seems to be doing everything right and leaving behind an enviable digital footprint — Cristiano Ronaldo!

Ronaldo created history by becoming the first athlete to surpass 200 million social media followers (Twitter, Instagram and Facebook combined). Most certainly, this is a monumental moment for Ronaldo and the sport of football. But those smiling the most are the brands and sponsors he endorses and Real Madrid (the club he plays for).

What is Brand Ronaldo doing that that others aren’t?

As discussed in my previous post ‘What is culture’ , brands or organizations will succeed when they align their work and identity to the culture they represent or nurture. And branding is a set of techniques designed to generate cultural relevance. Digital technologies have not just created potent new social networks but also dramatically altered how cultures work. It binds together communities that once were geographically isolated, greatly increasing the pace and intensity of collaboration.

Evangelizing content in the digital age, needless to say, is a challenge and an opportunity. In 2009, when Ronaldo decided to brush aside all the existing social ‘fake’ accounts and announce his presence, no one predicted the rise of his social stardom. Producing innovative popular content requires a distinctive mode of organization, some might even call it an art. To a large extent, I believe Real Madrid had a huge role to play in this, simply because it is a club that thrives on community and fan engagement and values the sentiments of its club members with utmost seriousness.

Social stardom draws several theories to justify its success, and it is not just the fan behavior that matters, there is more to it. Fan engagement has been the subject of several research papers and one of the interesting things is what sociologists call ‘subcultures’. Social media has democratized subcultures. On the same day, Ronaldo’s post could draw attention to his personal life and deliver million dollar value to the brands he endorses. The sheer impact is noteworthy.

Contrary to popular belief, sports, and football in general is a small business. I read an article which had a fascinating piece of information; one Finish firm calculated that Real Madrid, with revenues over 500 million (highest in the football world), would rank only 120th in terms of revenues generated, just within Finland! Economically, football as a business is puny. Emotionally, the value it hold is phenomenal. In economies like football, the power of social media to tap into the emotions and generate additional revenues is huge. Not so long ago, Twitter and Snapchat were abandoned terrains for most football clubs. But today, it is an essential aspect delivering value to your fans, followers and people who religiously follow athletes and stars.

Network Effect

Players like Ronaldo, Messi, Neymar and Mesut Ozil are some of the most followed footballers on social media, allowing companies to leverage their brand value to reach customers. Network effect, by definition is the effect that one user of a good/ service has on the value of that product to other people. Brands and clubs use technology to create emotional product experiences that customers then want to share with others. In the age of the ‘second screen’, it’s now a matter of adaptation and joining the party more than competitive advantage, which is driving many players and clubs to social media.

Ronaldo’s foothold speaks volumes of not just his on field prowess but his commitments off-field. One of the earliest posts on social media was a picture of the birth of his son. Not only did it shatter records for most likes in a day but it also exposed the side of athletes which fans wished to engage with. Even to this day, Ronaldo’s pictures with his son on Instagram account attracts almost the same amount of likes as his endorsements. What is interesting to note here is the relationship and fine balance between the two Ronaldo s — the fashionista footballing superstar and the doting family guy. His perfectly gelled hair and vanity lifestyle has endured several criticisms and even earned him endorsements with the likes of Armani and Tag Heuer. The movie, Ronaldo, which revolved mostly around the star’s life outside football threw light on the lesser known Ronaldo — the father, the son, the friend that he is. Fans loved it! The whole lavish lifestyle and big money cars and mansions were almost forgotten in the light of this newly discovered side.

“…these people who aspire to the highest, make the most of their bodies and aspire to be champions. People want to see where this lad came from, humble beginnings, and the power of hard work and determination. That fascinates me.” — Anthony Wonke, Director of Ronaldo, the movie.

Athletes’ off-field commitments and affiliations could help them secure deals in the future. Ask, Barry Bonds and he will affirm. In 1998, during its nascent stages, Under Armour suddenly found itself becoming the baseball superstar’s most favorite sports brand. According to CEO, Kevin Plank, Bonds was flaunting Under Armour everywhere! “We didn’t know how he was getting the shirts (we weren’t sending them to him), but he was wearing them all the time, and he really liked them.” This led to a future endorsement deal between the two parties and the rest is history. But this was in the pre-social media age. Today, platforms offer genuine interactions between fans and players and this is driving the economies in the world of football. NBA star Kevin Durant, of Oklahoma City Thunder, believes in the power behind honest voices hidden in the text,” I just feel like when you read player’s post (brushing aside brand endorsement post), you can almost read it in the player’s voice- that it’s 100 percent them, 100 percent their words and their insights and thoughts about the game or whatever the topic is”. You have total control over what goes out, and the handling firms just alter the language. But with great social media power, comes great responsibility. Stars like Ronaldo and LeBron James always have to be conscious of what they wish to be out there, because once you hit send, then it’s out there for the rest of your life. You’ve got to be conscious about that and you don’t ever want to do that irrationally. With a over a million people viewing each single post on these platforms, impact and turnover across global communities is crucial. When David Beckham signed for Real Madrid in 2003, the first thing the club did was announce an Asian Tour. That single tour generated 9 million in revenue for the Spanish giants.

Cristiano Ronaldo’s popularity on Facebook is so vast and profitable that any post on his social media website is worth $143,750 to the brand he endorses. That is a gargantuan sum, making his posts the most expensive one on Facebook. It didn’t take Nike too long to put a ‘swoosh’ on his cover photo! Polaris Sports, the firm which handles Ronaldo’s social media posts claims that they maximize the superstar’s brand value just before/during festive and holiday season. when he surpasses milestones or prior to high profile games such as the ‘El Classico’ or the semi-finals/finals of UEFA Champions League. The fact that people still debate about the popularity and who’s better of the two — Ronaldo or Messi, is great branding for the sport, Real Madrid and Barcelona, and many rival brands which thrive off on field rivalries. And I don’t see the two players complaining a lot about it either. The more people debate over it, the more they make, the more sponsors get to sell and the more we buy. It is the perfect cycle.

The commercial gain of having a sizable engaging following can be massive. Often the fee paid to a player by an organization or team is quoted based on their social media audience alone. Increasingly even the transfer fee can be influenced by the player’s global marketability. Indeed the same rings true for football clubs. No wonder clubs pay a huge price tag to lure players. It not just their services on the field that they are interested in, but their offline engagements which could bring in high value sponsorship and new fans. I personally know fans who switch loyalties based on the club their favorite player plays for. The number of fans who so are plenty, and in countries where football is probably not the most popular sport, these superstars play a vital role in elevating the club, sport and the brands they endorse. It is not just enough to know whether you attracted a new fan. It is incredibly lucrative if clubs can tap into the social data aspects and learn about such fans. Where are these new fans from, what is their age, what do they do, what other sports do they watch, are they students or working class (i.e do they have credit cards or not). Data of this magnitude will undoubtedly hold key. Clubs, teams, sponsors and athletes must ask themselves — “How can I make money from the people who will never engage with me directly but are on our Facebook page, our Twitter page?” Social media data is influencing clubs to build their own apps. With such engagements, the clubs can leverage the data to generate revenues and build communities across the globe. Clubs are now generating their own content, ahead of journalists and media firms. Bayern Munich, Arsenal and Manchester United have their social-media team travel with the players and stay in the same hotels, so they can give fans a club-approved inside view. Arsenal FC was probably one of the early adopters of social media. Earlier, I remember waiting to learn about line-ups, team news and player interviews through broadcasting networks but today if you go to Arsenal’s Facebook page, the club posts a video of the line-up before each match and an exclusive player interview after it. No outside journalist can get this kind of access. This community engagement is highly valuable and significantly drives up the emotional connect with the fans..

When David Beckham moved to LA Galaxy, he highhandedly brought in sponsors, viewership and put MLS on the map. A fine example of a club that understood the power and importance of social media is Manchester United. It’s no accident that in 2012, soon after United plunged into social media, the club signed a deal for shirt sponsorship with Chevrolet for £47m a year, a world record. Tomorrow, if Ronaldo wishes to leave Real Madrid, albeit his age, every club would like to have him, and one of the many reasons is his social media presence and marketing potential. Strategic and well-organized social media presence opens doors for better transfer chances and sponsorship. If clubs or sponsors choose between two players who are on the same level, and one of them has more people on social media, they will choose the other one. Even if the player without social media plays better, the player with organized and professional social media has an advantage!

In media, there’s a race is to get out there first. Control is a key benefit that several players cited over and over about their media strategies. Players who work on their personal brand and use their social channels to communicate that effectively are the major benefactors. Within the industry there is still a perceived disconnect between a large, active social media audience and a player’s commercial viability for brands. People are starting to understand that connection but there’s a long way to go. The players and management teams who get it and move to address it will benefit the most. The approach is fundamentally different from how brands have traditionally built communities around their products, and incumbents have a lot to learn. If athletes and teams want to catch up and achieve the same scale and community engagement, they will need to focus on harnessing a similar brand network effect.