For professional athletes, endorsing brands and products is a second full-time job—and it sure can pay like one.

Patriots QB Tom Brady makes nearly half of his income through endorsements, while NBA star Lebron James gets 60% of his income that way. (For tennis icon Serena Williams, that number is 86%).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

That’s all well and good for the athletes. But is it worth it for the brand?

What we already know

A prior study found that people remembered objects better when they were paired with a famous athlete than with an average Joe. It seems that famous athletes do get your attention, and that attention can spill over.  

But does it matter what you’re selling? You’d guess that Tom Brady is a better fit for athletic equipment than garden equipment—but it’s never been tested. Also, companies want athletes to boost their brand as a whole, not just a specific product. Here too there was little research to lean on.

So, we decided to test it out ourselves.

Study 1: Assessing athlete-product “fit”

Some brands seem like more natural fits for an athlete than others. But do viewers feel the same way? We had participants rank how well a few famous athletes “fit” for each of the brands they endorsed. 

As expected, participants thought some brands fit better with their athletes than others. Lebron James was judged to fit with Nike way better than he does with Kia, even though he actually endorses both companies. Just as you expected, right? (Stay tuned…)

Study 2: Assessing ad effectiveness

With our assumptions about athlete/brand fit checked, we invited 60 participants to our NYC lab to participate in the main study.

The study had four stages. First, participants performed a Purchase Intent Task using our Subconscious Influence Meter Methodology (SIM), which combines both conscious and subconscious components of decision making.  

 

Then, they watched a series of commercials and filler content, to make the experience realistic. While they enjoyed the TV, we were measuring their real-time neural engagement using SPARK Neuro’s neuroanalytic suite. (We’ll come back to that).

 

After the commercials were over, we measured their purchase intent scores again to look for any changes, then followed up with a memory recall test and survey about the brands and products they saw. We thanked them, paid them for their time, and sent them on their way.

Here’s what we found.

The results

Study 1 found that athlete fit matters: Lebron James, for example, was a better “fit” for Nike than for Kia. You might think we could have stopped there, giving our blessings to Nike and counseling Kia to look elsewhere. 

But you’d be wrong.

It turns out, the least likely athlete-brand fits performed the best. We found this across neural measures of attentional and emotional engagement, and these neural firings mapped right onto behavior: the brands with the lowest athlete/brand fit got the biggest boost in purchase intent after the commercials were over. What’s going on?

This result may seem surprising, but it’s a well-known effect in psychology and neuroscience. Our brain is wired to attend to the unexpecteda holdover from our days on the savanna, when the lion hiding in the bushes was the one that would turn us into lunch. This millennia-old tendency to keep a sharp eye out for the surprising is still with us, and it crops up in places it isn’t needed. Like watching commercials.

Maybe that’s why Lebron’s ad for Nike—a familiar and expected pairing—was among the lowest, while his Kia ad was his most remembered commercial. Maybe that’s why Serena Williams’ surprising ad for Bumble got the most engagement of the entire study.

 

So, there’s good news for non-sports brands: You too can benefit from athlete endorsers. But what else can brands do to get viewers engaged? 

Looking at our top-performing commercials, we noticed a few things:

First, when athletes played their sports, people really tuned in. We want to see these all-stars do what they do best.

Showing the athlete interacting with the product was also a key part of ad success. But brands could get an extra boost if they showed the athlete incorporating the product into their daily lives. Just look at what happened when participants watched Serena using the Bumble app.

Here’s our takeaway:

  • Unlikely athlete-product pairings prompted high levels of neural engagement—and those brain signals were closely related to participants’ purchase intentions.
  • Our brain attends to the unexpected, which can be used to foster high engagement.
  • Bring unexpected pairings to the next level by having the athlete: interacting with the product, playing their sport, and showcasing their lifestyle.