It was a mission of diplomacy, but to endear himself to a foreign leader, Prime Minister Stephen Harper brought instruments of battle.
In March, Mr. Harper went to Tokyo to launch free-trade talks with Japan, bearing a gift: a pair of Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) gloves signed by Canadian welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre. Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, a reported fan of the sport, received them with a broad smile.
But for Mr. St-Pierre's management team, the Prime Minister's presentation was more than political theatre. It was another step in a months-long campaign to bring the star of mixed martial arts to the mainstream.
At the annual advertising festival in Cannes this weekend, Justin Kingsley, a partner at Montreal advertising agency Sid Lee, took the stage at the Debussy Theatre with Mr. St-Pierre to talk about how to build a brand when the brand is a person – specifically, a brawny fighter in a violent sport.
When Sid Lee was brought on board in April, 2011, by Mr. St-Pierre's management team at LB3i Sports, the fighter was already a celebrity. But he faced challenges from a branding perspective that other athletes do not. For one, sponsors would offer only a fraction of what they would pay a mainstream athlete.
"Georges, he's not a hockey player. He's not a football player. He's in a sport that's still considered niche," Mr. Kingsley said in an interview.
"We knew we had a guy who transcends the sport, but we also knew we had to find a strategic way of appealing to more people."
The agency conducted research in partnership with an outside firm to gauge fan perceptions of Mr. St-Pierre compared to other athletes and mainstream celebrities. He was rated high in attributes such as trust and sexiness, proving he had two sides to his appeal – toughness inside the octagon but a well-defined personality outside. The agency then put that research in a 60-page document as a selling point to sponsors, highlighting that duality as central to his marketing image.
The agency redesigned his logo to reinforce that duality (the old one looked like a fleur-de-lis, the new one is an ambigram). And it began consulting regularly with Mr. St-Pierre, hosting him for breakfasts at the agency's in-house kitchen to talk brand strategy.
In the 14 months since then, Mr. St-Pierre has doubled his endorsement deals. And he's getting paid more for them, said Philippe Lepage, partner at LB3i and one of Mr. St-Pierre's managers. (He is also signed with Los Angeles-based talent firm Creative Artists Agency.)
"Sponsors are interested in actual facts. … If you don't have a solid base all the branding you do is nothing," he said.
All this has happened while a knee injury kept him out of the octagon. Mr. Kingsley and his team saw this as an opportunity to increase fans' engagement with Mr. St-Pierre. Their branding strategy had already focused on social media. After the injury, Sid Lee encouraged Mr. St-Pierre to bring fans into his recovery process. A series of videos posted to his Facebook page that show him working through physical therapy, conversations with fans on Twitter and Facebook, and updates from the clinic all helped to keep fans connected to him. Since the beginning of 2011, his Facebook fan base has doubled, to 2.95 million, and Twitter followers more than tripled, to 450,505.
It's incredibly rare for an advertising agency to do this kind of branding work with an athlete, said Brian Cooper, president of Toronto sports marketing firm S&E Sponsorship Group. Not all of them need it. But for an athlete who is not part of a team, in an often maligned sport, it is important to build a brand.
"They're taking that brand and extending it beyond the sport," he said. "… It's a smart move on his part."
Making a name
Some of martial arts star Georges St-Pierre's endorsement deals since branding work began with ad agency Sid Lee:
- Hayabusa: Combat gear
- Eidos: Sleeping Dogs video game (consultant for fighting sequences)
- 888Poker: Poker and gambling website
- A health and fitness app for mobile devices in development
- Book in development with HarperCollins
- Documentary film in production
PREVIOUSLY SIGNED, CONTINUING DEALS
- Rushfit: Workout program including DVDs and books
- Under Armour: Workout clothing
- Icon Health & Fitness: workout DVDs
- Affliction: Clothing