Should Lacoste drop-shot Novak Djokovic?
All press is good press, or so the saying goes, but when it comes to COVID-19 things are looked at very differently. For nearly two weeks, Serbian tennis player and world number one, Novak Djokovic’s saga of trying to enter Australia, unvaccinated, to defend his Australian Open title has been running daily across every global news outlet and social media platform.
In the end, his efforts failed, and Djokovic (having taken on perhaps the only man more headstrong than he himself is, that is Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison) was ignominiously ejected from the country.
Visible in every picture and video accompanying those reports is French brand Lacoste’s instantly recognisable green crocodile logo. Even satirical cartoons that lampooned Djokovic showed him in a Lacoste branded shirt. His brand and theirs have become synonymous.
While brands would normally pay handsomely for global exposure, when it comes to “this” type of global exposure, most would rather distance themselves. Djokovic is a controversial character. Djokovic has refused to be vaccinated, admitted to breaking Covid conventions in his home country by attending a press interview after apparently testing positive for Covid, and has claimed that a member of his team omitted to state which countries he had visited prior to travelling to Australia on his visa application. Whether you are sympathetic to Djokovic or not, the vaccine debate provokes strong reactions on both sides and most brands want to stay out of it.
That being said, Djokovic’s anti-vax stance (to be clear, he has said that while he is opposed to taking a Covid vaccine, he is not necessarily “anti-vax”) and questionable views on science were well known, long before the pandemic hit. Lacoste would have been aware of, for instance, his belief that you can change the properties of water through emotion, when it first signed him up in 2017 and his views on vaccines were widely known when it renewed his contract last year until 2025.
Nonetheless he is one of the world’s most recognised sports figures, which clearly was a draw for Lacoste. Djokovic currently has nine million followers on Twitter and 10.1 million on Instagram. The player first signed with Lacoste in May 2017 – a moment described by Lacoste as a “coup de Coeur” (love at first sight) – after his previous contract with Uniqlo ended. Prior to that, he was signed to adidas and Sergio Tacchini.
His Lacoste contract is said to be his most lucrative, valued at around $9 million by several American media outlets. It is worth noting that Roger Federer signed a 10-year $300 million endorsement deal with Japanese retailer Uniqlo after it ended its relationship with Djokovic.
Since Djokovic had form for being controversial and difficult before the deal, Lacoste would have done its due diligence and decided he was worth the risk. But Lacoste wasn’t to know there would be a global pandemic when it first signed with him and that his views on vaccines would become so public and so closely linked to the image of its famous crocodile. However, the risk was always evident, as fashion experts have been quick to point out.
“Djoko: The Short Version
He was greatly disliked on the tour and publicly for being a jerk.
He hired a crackerjack PR team who cleaned up his image and swept away the jerk rep.
He went to Australia and proved that in fact, deep down inside, he is a jerk.
Dana Thomas, Paris based style writer and author of Fashionopolis, @DanaThomasParis, summed up the situation on Twitter.
Lacoste will now no doubt be looking at the small print in its contract with Djokovic. It clearly won’t want to pay lots of money for negative press, nor would it want its protected brand associated with the anti-vaxxer movement and its acolytes. The situation calls to mind Fred Perry’s need to distance itself from the American alt-right when the so-called Proud Boys adopted its distinctive and identifiable polo shirt, in a black and yellow colourway, as their uniform. The difference being Fred Perry didn’t actually sponsor them and removed their preferred shirt from sale, while issuing a statement distancing themselves. Most would have understood that Fred Perry was simply unfortunate here.
Established by French tennis legend René Lacoste in 1933, Lacoste is now owned by Maus Frères SA, a Swiss holding company based in Geneva. It also owns the GANT and Aigle brands. This week, Lacoste released a statement wishing everybody well at the Australian Open and stated that it will contact Djokovic “as soon as possible” to review the events that accompanied his presence in Australia. That’s going to be a fun meeting for all concerned.
In a quick, non-scientific poll (it’s tempting to say Djokovic would approve of it on that basis), I carried out on Twitter last week, when asked whether Novak Djokovic would stop them from buying Lacoste, 62% of respondents said yes and 38% said no. There were 53 replies and a one, in particular, worth noting from a fellow Serb.
“I’m not buying Lacoste polos since he became their brand ambassador (before that they were my favourite brand and was able to find size 10 in every Lacoste store).
“Djokovic is portraying, represent if you want, certain stereotypes about Serbian people and I as a Serb do not want to take a part in it, so I decided to boycott the Lacoste brand as long as they are sponsoring this clown.”
@LubovEvgenyevna via Twitter
Nonetheless, Djokovic has a vocal and active group of fans. Watching news reports, Djokovic seemed to have strong support in his home country of Serbia. It is also worth noting that Djokovic is a resident of Monaco and lives in Monte Carlo to reduce his tax burden. It is estimated that from his $143 million in prize money, he has avoided paying $29 million in taxes. But he is far from the only sports star to take up residence in the Principality.
While, in the wake of the saga, Lacoste sales may go up in Serbia and among a hardcore fanbase, that’s not going to make up for, potentially, tanking sales in its home market of France or elsewhere. The French Open, the next Grand Slam after Australia, has just said he can’t play there with a government spokesman saying his presence, if he remains unvaccinated, is “out of the question”. Lacoste is not only Djokovic’s sponsor but, a premium sponsor of the whole tournament. It’s very embarrassing to say the least.
Other sponsors of the star tennis player include French car manufacturer Peugeot, Swiss watchmaker Hublot and Japanese sportswear giant Asics. They have not released statements, but then their brands have not been so visible under every negative headline.
Sports people, and in particular tennis stars, have been a no-brainer for brand sponsorships since the advent of social media (and even before). Huge followings, with dedicated fans, and a strong track record of propelling sales has seen ever burgeoning sponsorship deals and contracts. Brands are always looking for the next big star.
When British player, Emma Raducanu, won the US Open, in 2021, she became an overnight sensation. Multi-cultural, beautiful and amiable, brands such as Tiffany, Chanel, Evian and British Airways started to throw money and product at her.
In October 2021, she became Dior’s latest ambassador for both Maria Grazia Chiuri’s womenswear collections and the face of the brand’s skincare and make-up offering, overseen by Peter Philips. However, those brands may have become slightly jittery as her form appeared to tank after her extraordinary win in New York and she barely won a set of tennis.
While she seems highly unlikely to disgrace any brand (she is known for being level-headed and very likeable), she needs to start winning again to make the endorsements worthwhile (and happily she was in commanding form in the first round in Melbourne, despatching Sloane Stephens, 6-0, 2-6, 6-1).
She’s just 19 and there’s plenty of time for her to forge a career as a tennis great (and as Brits we hope she does) but that shaky patch is a lesson for brands in making sure that they don’t jump on the next big thing too soon, lest it doesn’t turn out to be that big of a thing after all… (or worse, becomes very big for all the wrong reasons).
But in some respects, you can understand brands wanting to tie talent down early, for when these associations work, they work brilliantly. Rafael Nadal’s line for Nike is brilliant and will sell long after the great man retires from the court. And some of the best players like Roger Federer and Sir Andy Murray are investing in brands (ON and Castore respectively) who will benefit from their cash, expertise and endorsement for many years to come, irrespective of whether they are playing or not.
However, the Djokovic saga clearly demonstrates that when it comes to signing endorsement deals with sports stars, look (and think) before you leap is the best approach.