It is also a fascinating case study for brand managers everywhere. Call it, "A Tale of Two Press Releases". The article at MSNBC.com includes press statements from 2 of Phelps' big sponsors- Speedo and OMEGA. It is not even so much that these companies went out their way to back Phelps. I would certainly expect them to back one of their biggest celebrity athletes/horses- sure. There's too much revenue at stake. Phelps is (was) a guy who's marketability you could bank on for 4 more years leading up to the 2012 Olympics; How many endorsers of any caliber can guarantee a shelf life that is that long (just ask Tom Brady, any stop on the PGA Tour or, hell, even Mike Vick)?
But, nothing is guaranteed. Phelps was as close as it comes, until he decided to act like his meager 23 years instead of being, well you know, the greatest
Speedo has probably a bigger stake in the game than OMEGA based simply on product field (swimsuits versus luxury watches) and relevant endorsers; Speedo plays it close to the vest with athletes who use their product to perform, such as Phelps and Italy's Philippo Magnini. OMEGA can reach across pop culture to a variety of what they call "ambassadors" to hock their wares: Cindy Crawford, Nicole Kidman, Zhang Ziyi, James Bond, Eugene Cernan, George Clooney, Sergio Garcia, and Michael Schumacher to name a few.
So how does this factor in the decision to issue a press release supporting Phelps? Simple. One can. One should. Speedo should endorse Phelps because he is the absolute in terms of a testimonial they can or will ever find (have you seen those Olympic swimsuits?). OMEGA can support Phelps because he associates with a niche of their products nicely (water resistant watches).
But what I am perplexed by with OMEGA is their PR statement passing off guilt on Phelps as if it does not exist (a "non-issue" they call it) simply because he did it in his "private life" and not, one supposes, as "Michael Phelps- OMEGA Ambassador". (I won't begin to speculate on the brand of watch caught on Phelps' wrist in the damning photo.) Contrastingly, Speedo's statement in the same article above, is much more careful about it's intent. In their statement, they say, ""Michael Phelps is a valued member of the Speedo team and a great champion. We will do all that we can to support him and his family."
None of that "Case closed," business like OMEGA. None of the arrogance. None of the brash dismissal of a young's man's indecent behavior. Simply put, Speedo does it better than OMEGA. Intelligent, honest... human. It is obvious which of these companies actually is concerned with both the man and the image- the reality and the perception that is Michael Phelps, as well as the bottom dollar.
The difference is simply that Speedo understood better that the reality of the situation called for a delicate hand and not the broad stroke carelessly brandished about like OMEGA. To me, that is the difference between branding your product well and taking a misstep in your marketing. Whether it impacts either company positively OR negatively (and how extensively), remains to be seen. But it does give one insight as to who might be better to work with either as a marketing partner or even as an employer. Judgement call? Maybe. But only time will tell the verdict.