NORMALLY when you type a sports personality’s name into Google, the search engine will automatically suggest extra words to help narrow your search. The order the words are listed are based on the popularity of searches. Frequent examples of words that pop up are "training", "twitter" and "girlfriend".
However, when you key in the name of Wallabies flanker David Pocock, the first tag suggested is “gay”. This tag though is not a reflection on the star’s sexuality but rather the player’s pro-same sex marriage stance and his decision with wife Emma not to sign their official marriage papers until their friends in same sex relationships were afforded the same rights in Australia.
This is just one of many humanitarian causes the 23-year old champions. Since launching his autobiography “Openside” last month, much has been reported about Pocock’s foundation TwentyEighty Vision in his native Zimbabwe. Working, particularly in the areas of maternal health care and education for girls.
Unlike many of his teammates the rugby star has shunned lucrative boot sponsorship deals due to how some sportswear is produced in sweatshop conditions and is using his status to come up with viable ethical alternatives.
In order to fund Eightytwenty Vision in the long run, Pocock established Heroes Boots, which will produce and promote fair trade sports wear.
Putting it bluntly Pocock is marketing himself as a brand in order to fund charitable causes. Just like a myriad of other sports stars, he has a website, using his signature as a logo but rather than links to commercial sponsors he has links to charitable and human rights projects he is involved in.
It could be argued that many athletes over the years have done great work for charity but in this increasingly brand aware world, in what Pocock is doing by making himself an inspirational rather than aspirational brand seems novel and refreshing.
Switching codes to soccer, Rio Ferdinand has also marketed himself as a brand with his online magazine #5 and smart phone app.
#5 has a highly aspirational tone. This is very apparent in the “Gadgets” section. One issue featured an £80,000 Audi designed grand piano and the Nike Jordan portable trainer storage cabinet designed by luxury luggage company Pinel&Pinel at a cool £25,000!
Ferdinand and his editorial team do not assume everyone is earning Premiership wages so more modest items such as the latest iPod Shuffle are also included.
This mixture of high end luxury goods and affordable products mirrors the format of many fashion magazines aimed towards a female readership where one can lust after a handbag costing a couple of thousand euro while seeing the latest high street fashions.
The centre-back’s app features videos where he guides viewers around the private jets chartered by Manchester United for away games. This offers particularly teenage boys, who dream of a career in professional sport an insight into the riches that await the very few that make it to the top.
The fact that the UK has a population of upwards of 60 million means that people are further removed from their sports stars. Also the astronomical pay packets received by professional footballers separates them further from the general public. So, it can be argued that, as well as being aspirational and promoting certain products ventures such as Ferdinand’s give a glimpse into an exotic world.
With our most talented and therefore most famous footballers exported across the Irish Sea, it is our professional rugby players that occupy a unique position. This is the case because many would be considered world class but they train and play in Ireland. They earn high wages but are dwarfed by those of their soccer counterparts.
With our island’s small population, we would seem to have two or three degrees of separation rather than six, so our professional rugby players are relatively accessible. That is probably one of the reasons for the increased popularity of the sport. Whether we like it or not, as professional rugby’s profile in Ireland continues to grow, our players are going to start to market themselves as brands.
A number of players including Brian O’Driscoll, Ronan O’Gara, Jamie Heaslip and Rob Kearney have their own websites.
However, would aspirational branding in the style of Ferdinand work for Irish rugby players? On a number of levels, probably not. First of all as Ireland is so small and most fans, which would be interested already know which shops, restaurants, bars, nightclubs are popular amongst their heroes. Unlike professional footballers in England, you are pretty likely to spot a rugby player out in the same cinema, restaurant or bar as you.
So, an insight into lifestyle aspects would not have the same mystique. Also, flashy branding probably would not sit easily with the Irish mentality. But the accessibility of the players makes them more relatable and that gives them, it could be argued some extra power in terms of marketing.
Already a number of players have high profile relationships with charitable organisations such as Donncha O’Callaghan, who is an ambassador for UNICEF. Paul O’Connell is heading a campaign for Barnardos. For the background of his Twitter page, Heaslip uses images of himself in Nepal with local children during a visit with the Umbrella Foundation. He also has appeared in an ad supporting Goal. These are just a small sample of Irish rugby players working with charity.
There is already this awareness in Ireland of rugby stars using their fame to promote charitable causes. And it would seem that players today are in an ideal position to market themselves as brands in Ireland. It would make sense for them to follow Pocock’s route and completely dedicate their brand to good causes. It would enhance the players’ profile and give them an image of a hero off the filed as well as on it.