Aaron Hernandez: Where Troubled Athlete Endorsement Deals Go to Die

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The dangers of putting a large portion of a brand’s marketing into the hands of a few athletes was highlighted again by the murder charges against Aaron Hernandez. Millions of dollars in corporate marketing efforts can explode in a matter of minutes. Whereas traditional advertising and public relations usually are safe modes for promotion, the route that runs through an athlete’s reputation is not.

CytoSport quickly cancelled its relationship with Hernandez, which is tough blow, since many of its products are barely visible to the public. CytoSport sells supplements, which are often frowned upon, as a way to increase athletic prowess. Perhaps that made Hernandez an ideal endorser, at least in retrospect. Aside from its most visible brand, which is Muscle Milk, it makes products with odd names like Fast Twitch, which has claimed benefits that seem almost too good to be true:

Take muscle-expanding pumps to the next level with Fast Twitch, an energizing pre-workout drink designed to fuel fast twitch (type II) fibers for greater muscular explosiveness and size, while giving users unparalleled strength & stamina. Fast Twitch fuels intense, fast twitch contracting workouts in two ways: by boosting nitric oxide (NO) levels and encouraging formation of the high-energy molecule creatine phosphate.

The other endorsement deal Hernandez has or had is with Puma, an third-tier athletic shoe company that needs exposure in a world in which Nike Inc. (NYSE: NKE) and Reebok are household names. Sergio Agüero is Puma’s most visible endorser, and few in the United States knows who he is.

It is too bad that Puma no longer has a major U.S. athlete to support its visibility, because its ambitions are almost beyond compare in the gear market:

With the objective of being “The Most Desirable and Sustainable Sportlifestyle Company”, PUMA’s position as one of the few, true multi-category brands is to be strengthened and the opportunities offered by the sportlifestyle market are to be systematically exploited in all categories and regions.

The company may also regret the way it announced its deal with Hernandez:

Sportlifestyle brand PUMA announces today a two-year partnership with professional football player Aaron Hernandez who will become a face of the brand’s training category. New England tight end Hernandez will be part of a roster of athletes from a variety of sport backgrounds to work with the brand on men’s training initiatives. Known for his speed and versatility, Hernandez is the first to join the PUMA training team.

In true PUMA fashion, the brand’s relationship with Hernandez will focus on the unexpected and highlight his life off of the field. As part of the long-term relationship, Hernandez will be featured in the brand’s Nature of Performance marketing campaigns, attend PUMA events, offer training tips via the brand’s web site and social media channels, and lead special programs with retail partners including a program launching later this year involving training with high school students.

It is that “Hernandez will focus on the unexpected and highlight his life off of the field” that’s the killer.