Are Customers More Likely to Buy Celebrity- or Athlete-Endorsed Clothing?

Bella Hadid recently landed a major contract with Nike. (Photo: Getty Images)
Bella Hadid recently landed a major contract with Nike. (Photo: Getty Images)

Are professional athletes better ambassadors for athletic brands than celebrities? Olympic ice dancer Meryl Davis seems to think so, as she recently called out Puma and Nike for using celebrity faces.

The Dancing With the Stars alum tweeted a collage of model Bella Hadid, who just landed a major contract with Nike; Kylie Jenner, who works with Puma; and two-time Olympic gymnast Aly Raisman, who is a spokeswoman for Reebok. She captioned the image, “I’ll take the one promoted by the athlete please.”

Davis’s point actually touches on a larger issue impacting nearly every retailer in the sportswear industry, one that’s especially present with the rise of athleisure. Using nonathletes to front activewear campaigns has always been controversial, but many brands still do it because of the major following that celebrities bring. “Just like with the athletes, the idea from the brand is to get some fashion credibility from celebrities that will make kids want to buy their shoes,” Matt Powell, sports industry analyst for research firm the NPD Group, told Fortune. Celebrities appeal to consumers for different reasons than athletes.

When Kylie Jenner partnered with Puma in early 2016, the brand’s global director of brand and marketing said in a statement that Jenner “represents a fresh and exciting new era for fashion, and we couldn’t think of a more fitting and influential female to headline this campaign for Puma.” Even though the brand’s choice to feature the young celebrity over an accomplished athlete was considered unconventional and even frowned upon by some, it’s undeniable that the 19-year-old has helped Puma’s sales to skyrocket.

In the company’s impressive third-quarter results, Puma chief executive Bjørn Gulden said, “New product lines like the Fierce, the Platform, the Ignite Dual, and the Fenty lines have shown to be ‘right’ for the consumers, and our marketing, with personalities like Rihanna, Kylie Jenner, Cara Delevingne, and, of course, the unbelievable performance of Usain Bolt, has increased our brand heat.” Jenner fronts the campaign for the brand’s Fierce sneaker, and, as stated by Gulden, Rihanna’s influence is noteworthy. Her highly sought-after creepers bring in major sales for the brand.

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 06: Rihanna celebrates the opening of the FENTY PUMA by Rihanna pop-up shops powered by SIX:02 on September 6, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for FENTY PUMA by Rihanna)
Rihanna celebrates the opening of the Fenty Puma by Rihanna pop-up shops powered by SIX:02 on September 6, 2016, in New York City. (Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for FENTY PUMA by Rihanna)

The sneakers from her Fenty x Puma line recently won Footwear News’s award for Shoe of the Year, which is unsurprising considering the shoes sold out in just three hours when they were unveiled last fall. Although the brand relies heavily on celebrity influence, it still holds high-profile partnerships with athletes like Italian professional soccer player Mario Balotelli and Bolt.

Puma is far from the only brand to work closely with nonathletes. While Nike has been a big proponent of athletes throughout its long history, the Oregon-based company jumped on the social media influencer bandwagon by bringing on 20-year-old Hadid. The model, who was actually training to compete in the Olympics as an equestrian but abandoned that ambition due to health issues, has walked runways around the world, fronted campaigns for prestigious designers, and landed a coveted spot in the upcoming 2016 Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show.

It’s an interesting move for a company that counts athletes including Michael Jordan, Serena Williams, LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and Cristiano Ronaldo among its contracted athletic elite. Hadid certainly doesn’t belong within the aforementioned group, but by appointing Hadid, Nike is obviously trying to appeal to a larger audience beyond sports.

Despite this trend, the brand’s sales of course will always be most substantially impacted by the high-profile athletic endorsements it holds. Like Rihanna’s and Jenner’s influence in bringing Puma to the forefront, athletes have the same pull, if not even stronger, in boosting sales for companies. Golden State Warriors superstar Stephen Curry is largely credited with bringing about the resurgence of Under Armour since signing with the brand in 2013. Earlier this year it was reported that sales of Curry’s signature basketball shoes are up 350 percent since the beginning of 2016, making their sales higher than those of any Nike signature shoes except for Jordan’s.

In Davis’s tweet, she commends Reebok for using female athletes. The gold-medal winning gymnast Aly Raisman and UFC fighter Ronda Rousey are just two of the many strong women the brand has partnerships with and features in numerous adverts. Yet what Davis failed to mention is that Reebok is not exempt from trying to leverage the popularity of celebrities. In fact, Reebok’s latest ambassador is none other than Bella’s older sister Gigi Hadid.

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