Windfall for athletes, but are brands sincere in rewarding Olympic heroes?

Brands' opportunist moves to reward athletes may backfire if they're seen as too self-serving.

AirAsia Group CEO Tony Fernandes, AirAsia country CEOs, Asean government officials posing with Asean medallists at a gala event held in the JW Marriott Hotel in Bangkok.
AirAsia Group CEO Tony Fernandes, AirAsia country CEOs, Asean government officials posing with Asean medallists at a gala event held in the JW Marriott Hotel in Bangkok.

For the few athletes who achieve impressive feats at major events like the recent Olympic Games, huge paycheques are to be expected when brands come knocking with endorsement deals. But following the Rio games, even before those deals could be discussed and inked, some brands were racing to ride on the athletes' glory. And some of them stumbled.

Airlines AirAsia and Singapore Airlines (SIA) wasted no time in announcing free flights and air miles for athletes who won medals at the Rio Games. AirAsia Group CEO Tony Fernandes stated on his Twitter and Instagram pages that gold medalists from Asean were to get free flights for life on the day Malaysian athletes picked up three gold medals at the Paralympic Games. AirAsia's actions stood in contrast to a lack of celebratory notice from national carrier Malaysia Airlines. 

While brands were rushing to offer the medalists cash rewards, free flights and real estate, the public was not left out of the bonanza. Thanks to Joseph Schooling, the swimming wonderkid who won Singapore's first-ever Olympic gold medal, brands like KFC and Grab dished out special discounts and promotions. 

Despite all the feel-good moments that the brands generated from the special ads and freebies, their generosity may ring hollow for simply jumping on the bandwagon.

Indeed, AirAsia heard criticisism for contradicting its 'Now everyone can fly' tagline by giving the athletes special treatment. The airline defended itself to Campaign Asia-Pacific in response to an email query, saying that the cornerstone of its ethos is low fares, and giving away free flights would not make its flights any less affordable. The airline's spokesperson revealed that talks are underway with the athletes for plans to feature them on the fleet's livery.

SIA also came in for harsh words when it was accused of sidelining Schooling in a group photo uploaded on its Facebook page. The airline was forced to remove the photo after much social-media furor.

Such a misstep could be avoided if the intention of the brand had been more sincere, said Marc Ha, Text100 Singapore managing director. "If your intentions for doling out rewards are self-serving, netizens will call you out, as was the case here," he said. "If the same picture was shared simply as airline staff spontaneously posing with the Singapore hero, the reaction would have been different." 

SIA also came under scrutiny as people waited to see how it would reward Paralympic Singaporean athlete Yip Pin Xiu, who won not one but two gold medals in swimming. Netizens flooded SIA's Facebook page with questions about whether Yip would receive the same treatment as Schooling, who was presented with 1 million KrisFlyer air miles. In a careful response to Campaign Asia-Pacific, SIA said celebratory activities are being planned for Yip, but provided no details of the reward. The airline added that it has been the official airline partner of the Singapore sports team, providing air tickets, excess baggage and operational support for the athletes at special rates.

Adhere to values

Companies need to strike a balance to avoid coming across as opportunists, Ha said. "Brands whose mission and values that align with the domain will come across as more congruent, but it's also a slippery slope," said Ha. "Are you saying that an Olympic gold medallist is more deserving of recognition than say, a dedicated school teacher who served loyally for 20 years of her career, bringing up the next generation of citizens?" He added that AirAsia would have stayed truer to its brand value if it had given free flights to those who cannot afford the flights instead.  

Elya Eusoff, regional digital PR lead from Bonsey Jayden, however, disagreed that AirAsia had strayed from its brand values by giving away free flights to athletes. "They are actually rewarding Asean Olympic and Paralympic medalists, which further stamps their presence in the region," said Elya.

He added that brands could consider long-term rewards like establishing an organisation in honour of the athlete . "This will resonate longer with consumers and it could be a joint effort between the athlete and the brand," said Elya. "Ultimately, brands should think long-term and sustainable."

Notwithstanding, Elya said the relevance of the athlete, among other factors, should determine the sustainability of any work with brands. "If the athletes are constantly in the scene, there will be some benefits of brand association whenever they are mentioned in the media or seen in public events," Elya said. 

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