I fell in love with tennis almost five years ago. I was in Paris. I was supposed to rendezvous with a boy, but that plan never got put into play. In high Parisian style, with the Eiffel looming in the background and a Hermès suitcase propped by my side, I was unceremoniously dumped via text. Now, the boy retained the rights to the pied-à-terre, but the tickets to the French Open, to his dismay later that day, were in my possession. It was there, at Roland Garros, that I was introduced to a new sport and another, better bad boy. This one making Grand Slam strides that year by reaching his first GS semifinal. An unknown named Novak Djokovic. I’ve a soft spot for the scrappy underdog. It was love at first sight.
In 2007, Djokovic, barely 20, was a clown on and off the court. Scoring favorably with the fans for his on-court impersonations of fellow players like Rafael Nadal, Maria Sharapova, and Andy Roddick, Djokovic behaved like a relentless and annoying younger brother whose mealtime m.o. is to unleash his humor at your expense. But like that brother, as offensive as he might be and however mad you might get, you just couldn’t help but crack a smile at Djokovic because he was that damn funny. That style occasionally rubbed folks the wrong way, especially given the contrast with the polished personas of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, and the brand sponsors No. 1 players like that attract—Rolodex, Net Gear, Nike, and Gillette, to name a handful.
Still, it was no surprise to see Djokovic eventually find a home and sponsorship deal with Head in 2009. Appropriately labeled a “racquet rebel,” Head channeled Djokovic’s vivacious and humorous talents into a few short films for its YouTube channel. I especially enjoyed the “scores on and off the court” flick, in which Djokovic shows us just how familiar and talented he is with stripper’s tassels. The organic and campy nature of the videos accentuates the understated style of Head’s under-the-radar brand advertising. It also hasn’t hurt that Djokovic’s game found a winning formulae, coincidentally or not, not too long after he switched to the Head racquet. He maintained an ATP No. 3 ranking for most of 2010 and is now No. 1.
This brings me to Head’s collaboration with the world’s No. 1 tennis player, which literally propels Djokovic to new heights as he promotes the YouTek™ IG Speed racquet. Djokovic basically plays tennis on the wings of a legendary Antonov II biplane while it’s in flight. The idea for the stunt was originally posted by a tennis fan on Head’s Facebook page and according to the ad agency that produced it, it’s real. Curiously, I never doubted that Djokovic was crazy enough to take on the challenge of mounting himself to a plane. On the flip side, many tennis fans, myself included, doubted that Roger Federer, who I also admire, actually pulled this video stunt off in one shot as he claims in his ever-so-quiet way. The video, part of a Gillette commercial shoot, had Federer serving a tennis ball with a Wilson racquet and knocking a can off the head of one of the crew members twice in a row. Intriguing in a different way from Djokovic’s stunt because, well, if he had missed? Supposedly, it was all filmed in one shot. Trick imagery or not, it, too, does the trick. The Federer film has had over 9 million hits since its appearance in August 2010.
The range in style with these two campaigns shows that there really are no boundaries to what brands can or will do these days to hit the viral sweet spot and garner more presence with consumers. Both campaigns—the raw, campy antics of a maverick like Djokovic for Head and the slick, polished film of a perfectionist like Federer for Wilson—are winning combinations. However, according to a report issued by the Forrester Group, “The Future of Interactive Marketing,” there’s still a wide disparity between “consumer behavior” and marketing behavior. Translation: Brands still aren’t fully integrating their messages across all channels of communications with their customers. Interactivity and the social network channels are treated as bastard children. Companies should be one step ahead of their customers, not one step behind in fulfilling the consumer experience.
I also find it uncanny that just as Federer’s long-standing reign of the ATP No. 1 spot has been overtaken by both Djokovic and Rafael Nadal during the last two years, his corresponding brand could be a case study for advertising of yesterday (i.e., pre-social media)—an era that’s about over. Now, don’t get me wrong. Federer––with a ATP ranking of No. 3––is an icon, and his legendary status will carry his brand equity for many more years, whether he maintains a ranking within the top 10 or not. However, slapping a celebrity against a glamour shot of a Rolodex no longer makes for an effective ad tactic—unless there’s a tie-in to an online pay-off. By contrast again, we have Djokovic, representing a younger generation and a new advertising regime, one in which social media and story telling co-mingle on a daily basis.
These days it’s hard to detect the raw bad boy traits we saw in Djokovic five years ago. While I feel sure that the jerk who stood me up in Paris is still up to no good with someone else, Djokovic has scrubbed up his act considerably, fashionably growing into his No. 1 spot. When you combine his global appeal, primo ranking, and how easy Djokovic is on the eyes, the offers for a multitude of brand relationships are just a matter of course. Yet Djokovic seems to prefer brands that fly below the radar, kind of like a Head, sticking closer to his campy roots. Djokovic recently split with Sergio Tacchin International, an Italian line, to take on Uniqlo, a Japanese design label better suited to the well-dressed Djokovic of today. If only all the bad boys I have painfully fallen in love with could polish up half as well.
As for Federer, he’s gracefully gliding along, retaining his brand appeal along with a commendable determination to once again hold the No. 1 ranking, even at the age of 30. It’s hard to offer the eloquent Federer any advice––brand or otherwise. However, after his 2011 loss to Nadal in the Sony Erickson Open semi-final (which Djokovic won, by the way), commentator Brett Ratner suggested “The Fed” might want to rethink his Wilson and switch to Head. You know what they say about word of mouth.