KU research examines why athletes use authenticity in personal branding, how personal life influences brand

LAWRENCE — Seemingly everyone has a personal brand these days, especially elite athletes. The ways athletes build and manage their brands online both in ways they can control and ways they cannot — like how people comment on Patrick Mahomes’ personal life — are at the center of research from the University of Kansas.

Nataliya Bredikhina, assistant professor of sport management in KU’s School of Education & Human Sciences, has published a pair of studies looking at why authenticity is central to building an athlete’s brand and how athletes’ personal lives are also a part of their human brand. The findings can help marketers and athletes alike understand the factors at play in presenting oneself to the world and building a desired brand.

Written with co-authors Thilo Kunkel and Ravi Kudesia of Temple University, the research was published in the Journal of Sport Management

Authenticity in athletes’ personal branding

Authenticity has long been viewed as paramount to building a personal brand. People want to see who a person genuinely is in their day-to-day life. Previous marketing research has focused on how consumers perceive brand authenticity but focused little on how brand producers strategize authenticity.

“Authenticity in marketing has become a big topic,” Bredikhina said. “Nowadays consumers aren’t just looking for the biggest or most popular brand but something that means more. The focus has generally been on the consumer. We’re asking what is authenticity from the producer's perspective.”

Bredikhina interviewed 30 elite athletes in sports such as volleyball, tennis, bodybuilding and triathlon about how they manage their personal brands and why. Authenticity routinely came up as an important factor to the athletes, but how they negotiate what is authentic and how to achieve it was not routine.

“What do people want to see? If I were in their shoes, what would I want to see? What do I want to show? What do I want to look back on and see on my social media? I have found this internal dialogue a little bit complicated,” an Olympic bronze medalist in softball said in one of the interviews.

Bredikhina, a former Division I tennis player, said the athletes primarily marketed themselves via social media. The medium was seen as a way to present aspects of themselves that are not covered by traditional media. Respondents said authenticity was important to them because without it, it would be more difficult to garner attention or achieve their goals. 

And those goals were about more than just getting attention or promoting their competitions. Several athletes reported online branding allowed them to land endorsement deals, sponsorships and was a way to make additional income.

“Being able to find their voice and engage with their audience, for some, was a matter of survival in their sport,” Bredikhina said. “For example, triathlon is a very expensive sport with equipment costs in the thousands of dollars. Without being able to get sponsorship, some athletes would no longer be able to compete.”

Athletes interviewed were what are sometimes referred to as “nanoinfluencers” or “microinfluencers,” ranging in followers from under 10,000 to approximately 30,000.

Respondents reported they felt a need to present themselves authentically, posting not only about their sport, but about their daily lives. However, that also came with risks. 

In addition to the nearly ubiquitous negative comments of social media, athletes voiced concerns over invasion of privacy from fans. There was also a perceived external expectation to share vulnerabilities such as how athletes dealt with injuries, poor results in competition and life’s disappointments, but such content carried both the potential of supportive engagement as well the risk of negative feedback. 

Similarly, some athletes reported being approached with gambling-related requests.

Despite the potential pitfalls, athletes generally reported they felt being authentic was the best way to achieve their brand goals. And the athletes were learning through trial and error, as they largely did not employ marketing agencies to help generate content and manage their brands, but performed those tasks themselves, in addition to their athletic endeavors. 

Bredikhina said she hopes to examine how negotiating authenticity in personal branding affects athletes’ psychological well-being in future research.

“The topic of authenticity kept coming up with the athletes, but they were trying to achieve it in different ways,” Bredikhina said. “In trying to reconstruct the psychological process of how we build authenticity, we found there were internal and public pressures on how to achieve it. With these athletes, that’s where the most complex negotiations took place.”

Romance in the socioecology of an athletic brand

Superstar athletes and their marketing teams present the aspects of their lives they want fans to see. But they have limited control over how people view their social lives away from the field of play. 

Image of KC Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes with tweet overlay from then-fiancee Brittany Matthews reading: "No, let them keeping ranking him #4 in the league ... we love it."
One of three ESPN social posts about the personal life of Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes and his then-fiancée, Brittany Matthews, analyzed in a study by Nataliya Bredikhina, KU assistant professor of sport management. ESPN posted Matthews' tweet to its Facebook page on Sept. 28, 2020.

To address the socioecological aspect of a human brand of a famous athlete, Bredikhina and co-authors analyzed consumer responses to three Facebook posts from ESPN regarding the personal life of Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes and his then-fiancée, Brittany Matthews.

The authors focused on three posts by ESPN announcing the couple’s engagement, pregnancy announcement and a post featuring Matthews’ comment on Mahomes’ ranking among NFL quarterbacks. The results shed light on the socioecological aspect of the “human brand” of a famous athlete.

“Personal brands are so rich. There is a human identity that comes into play,” Bredikhina said. “We have so many expectations in relation to gender norms, how people should behave, race and more. There is acknowledgement that these celebrity brands are human, and consumers are looking at celebrity athletes’ social circles, not just their athletic performance.”

Authors analyzed 5,115 comments from the three posts. When analyzing how consumers perceive Brittany Mahomes, predominant themes included that she was a problematic presence for Mahomes, a woman only interested in his money or a “ride-or-die chick.” 

Interestingly, perceptions of Matthews informed perceptions of Mahomes’ brand. When analyzing how consumers perceive the quarterback, primary themes included a trapped celebrity athlete, racial inferiority and alpha masculinity.

While it is common to find negative comments online, many of those intended to be positive carried with them troublesome reinforcement of stereotypes and societal norms. Examples included those claiming Matthews was a better evaluator of quarterback talent than professional scouts and others that said Mahomes was such a successful player due in part to having a dedicated wife to take care of the household. 

Few comments recognized Matthews for her own accomplishments, including playing professional soccer and being highly involved in the fitness industry.

“We found that, even though this is just one element of his life, the roles consumers assign to his romantic partner influence their perceptions of the athlete’s role on the field, as well as the rest of his brand,” Bredikhina said.

Written with co-authors Katherine Sveinson of the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and Elizabeth Taylor and Caroline Heffernan of Temple University, it was published in the journal European Sport Management Quarterly

The findings help illustrate how an athlete’s personal life and reaction to it are part of brand equity for the individual and entities that are within their sphere. The human brand is embedded in societal norms, the data showed.

“A human brand is a story. This isn’t just a brandmark, but it integrates multiple aspects of a person’s life,” Bredikhina said. “I think, inevitably, if there is a romantic partner that we know of, they will be part of the story. These posts were very heteronormative, and there was a lot to unpack about how we present and perceive women in the roles of athletes’ wives and girlfriends and how that influences the athletes’ brands.”

Wed, 05/22/2024


Mike Krings

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