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The Lance Armstrong Effect

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(Editors note: This story is part two of a two-part series that looks at the changing world of sponsorships. The first story was posted Tuesday, Feb. 8.)

Lindsey Vonn. Bode Miller. Tanner Hall. Seth Morrison.

Many people idolize these skiers. Yet do most consumers know which brands these athletes use? Not likely.

But retailers and manufacturers alike say sponsored athletes serve as brand ambassadors who bring customers into ski shops asking for the exact product they saw on the podium.

“Do we have a sure way of tracking those sales? No, not particularly,” says Andrew Couperthwait, Head‘s alpine product manager. “It’s definitely a brand-awareness type situation.”

And the younger the consumer, the more influenced they tend to be.

“We see it a lot more in the younger kids who are much more aware of what’s going on,” says Tyler Bunch, co-owner of the Alpine Ski Shop in Sterling, Va.

Photo courtesy X Games

Photo courtesy X Games

He says it’s the generation that watches the X Games, the Dew Tour and the Olympics, and knows who the athletes are, the events in which they compete and who wins.

Josh Walker, Bern‘s brand manager, is OK with “kids” being the ones who are brand aware. Walker says he pumps the bulk of his marketing dollars into athletes, and those athletes help influence core consumers.

“In the process of building our brand, athletes have been invaluable,” he says. “We definitely believe in the trickle-down effect. It’s worked for us.”

In other words, Walker invests in brand awareness among core consumers who then influence average consumers and, ultimately, grow the brand.

But does that really translate to sales for the retailer?

“A little bit,” Bunch says.

Hank Moore, retail department manager of Teton Village Sports in Jackson, Wyo., agrees. His customers may not know exactly what gear pro athletes use, but buyers are interested in athletes’ pro-series products.

That’s likely because it’s a one-of-a-kind, limited-edition product, he says.

Back in Virginia, Bunch says his customers don’t care as much about pro-series models. They pick products based on quality and aesthetics. If it has a pro skier’s name attached to it, that’s just a bonus, he says.

“It’s more a selling point afterwards,” he says.

Unless the athlete has serious star power, that is.

Dean Giez, manager of The Ski Hut in Duluth, Minn., points to athletes like Lance Armstrong who helped make road biking more popular, which then translated to sales.

photo courtesy Alex Witkowicz

photo courtesy Alex Witkowicz

Giez says people don’t always buy a specific product because it’s the best. They sometimes buy gear because it’s from a brand they know. Athletes go hand-in-hand with that.

When Head-sponsored-athlete Lindsey Vonn was in the limelight before, during and after the Olympics, Couperthwait says it was a success not only for ski racing, but for Head.

And at Bern, Walker says the company’s helmet sales spiked when its athletes were on the podium – especially Seth Wescott who won snowboardcross gold at the Vancouver Olympics.

Despite mixed messages on the payoff, retailers and manufacturers alike say sponsored athletes end up driving sales.

“I think it’s well worth the money that they’re putting into it,” Bunch says.

And Moore echoes that: “Certainly the brand awareness is beneficial to the retailers.”

Categories: Features

5 Responses to “The Lance Armstrong Effect”

  1. @SlopeSource says:

    Very interesting article. It's impressive companies are willing to invest so much in sponsorships with so little measurable ROI. And does social media provide any type of traceable metric on impressions of the athlete and/or brand? If nothing else, it sounds like a lesson here is if you're targeting an older audience, sponsorships may not be the way to go.

  2. Keith Baker says:

    We don't notice any real benefit to our business even though we carry some of the brands represented. There is an inherent paradox, though: We cannot be sure of what the state of the specialty outdoor recreation industry would be without these stars and the general awareness of outdoor activity they generate.

  3. Steven Rooke says:

    Interesting subject, we have a sports management business and have plenty of info on this topic. Most notably that the said sponsor, during these financially insecure times cut funding here first, i think that sheds a little more light on the value of such marketing projects.

  4. Salami says:

    if we figure out that there's no correlation, does that mean that we can stop with the annoying "hold up one ski seconds after the race for the cameras" move? It looks unnatural.

    I'm willing to go out on a limb here and say that a combination of price point and peer review are the main factors for purchases.

    After that, i'd say that if somebody finds a pro athlete with the same build and terrain choices, then they may be interested in the products they endorse.

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