Russian Athletes Pitch Products, Strike Out

In the United States, top athletes such as Michael Jordan and Andre Agassi are marketing powerhouses, stars with multimillion-dollar contracts who have the power to move millions of dollars worth of merchandise.

In Russia, the country's top tennis star and one of the nation's most visible sports stars, Yevgeny Kafelnikov, signed a one-year contract to promote a soft-drink brand. By many estimates, the ads flopped, and the contract was allowed to lapse.

And to add insult to injury for Kafelnikov, he was bettered in the marketing stakes by a bratty pre-adolescent.

Could it be that Russia is not yet ready for the sports-marketing connection?

"In the West, sports figures have achieved hero status, whereas here it's still immature," said Adam Payne, director of client services at Young & Rubicam advertising agency. "I think the ground-breaking company or ad agency that purposefully sets out to make someone a star will in the process [develop] a unique brand market."

But for now, Payne said, sports stars take a back seat to higher-profile political figures, as the Russian media concentrates its coverage on politics and catastrophic events.

The first commercials using Russian athletes to sell a product featured two well-known soccer players hawking Snickers candy bars. Unfortunately, noted Dennis Polyakov, a representative of the sports marketing firm IMG, the campaign did not work out: The Snickers brand name turned out to be even more well known than the players.

"It wasn't appealing enough to our consumers," said Anastasia Shamaro, a brand manager with DMB&B, the ad firm that developed the Snickers ads and is now planning a new marketing approach for the brand. "To make it more appealing to youth it won't work in the framework of sports."

Even one of Russia's foremost sport commodities, tennis-star Kafelnikov, took a swat at the Russian marketing game. By all accounts, it was a miss.

Kafelnikov appeared frequently on television, radio and print spots to promote Herschi Cola, a Dutch soft drink distributed in Russia by Soyuzcontract.

Herschi's flashy advertisements combined a well-known face with a lesser-known brand, said Polyakov of IMG, the agency that represents Kafelnikov. The fact that the athlete won the French Open some five months after the spots were launched added currency to the ad, he said.

But when Kafelnikov's one-year contract was up, Soyuzcontract chose not to renew, said representatives from Soyuzcontract and Grand TV, the advertising agency that placed the Kafelnikov ad.

Soyuzcontract would not disclose the amount of Kafelnikov's promotional contract. But Grand TV said the ad was pulled not because of expense, but because it was not deemed effective enough.

In place of Kafelnikov, Grand TV reinstated a series of spots for Herschi that featured a fiery-haired, trouble-making schoolboy named Sidorov, who had been much more effective in capturing the public's attention than the big-name tennis star.

"Consumers know the little boy more than Kafelnikov," said Grand TV director Lyudmila Ivanikova. Other industry experts agreed that the Kafelnikov ad was not effective.

While Western sports star have enough star-power to sell products that are unrelated to their athletic prowess -- underarm deodorant or cologne, for example -- Payne noted that Kafelnikov isn't well enough known to sell anything outside the sporting-goods realm. "There's no identifiable solid image of this hero. If you drink Herschi Cola drinks do you perform better in sports? I don't think that's what they're saying."

The right way to use a popular sports figure to sell a product is to leverage a certain aspect of the athlete, Payne said. The prime example is Jordan, a basketball hero people would apparently go out of their way to imitate. If Jordan wears Nike shoes on the court, the reasoning is that consumers will want to do likewise.

But Russia, for now, is still a tough market for sports-based advertising. "You don't have the consumer awareness here or the maturity," said one sport-shoe representative. "But I'm not quite sure there's any place like America."

That's not to say companies are not trying. Nike, Reebok and adidas, the world's top three sportswear companies, are sponsoring local athletes and teams to promote their products with the hope that stardom for the athletes -- as well as a big return for the company -- is just around the corner.

"We want local heroes in our advertising," Nike spokesman Per Carlsson said from Stockholm. "We sponsor athletes to promote the sport and increase our sales."

Nike, a world leader in the athletic footwear and apparel business, has signed contracts with Russian gold-medal sprinter Irina Privalova and Ukrainian Sergei Bubka, a six-time world champion in pole vaulting. The company has also signed promotional deals with gold-medal pole vaulter Maxim Tarasov and Inessa Krabets, the triple-jump gold medalist at the Summer Olympics in Atlanta.

Russia may be one of Nike's fastest-growing world markets, but that isn't necessarily thanks to successful ad campaigns with home-grown athletic talent. Carlsson said it is difficult to measure the effectiveness of using Russian athletes now to promote Nike goods here.

"Big American names work very effectively in Russia," he said. Russian athletes "are used more for building brand than any specific products."

Reebok has picked up marketing contracts with runner Yelena Nikolayeva, Reebok said, and Yolanda Chen, a world-record holder in the triple jump and hostess of her own cable television program. Tennis star Alexander Volkov is also allied with Reebok.

Some of these deals are not exclusive: Nike atheletes, for example, may appear in Reebok gear when they suit up for events with Russia's National Team, which is sponsored by Reebok.

The German sportswear manufacturer adidas AG signed contracts with rising teen tennis star Anna Kurnikova, as well as with Yevgenia Kulikovskaya, 16, who is less well-known.

"We're helping them before they become famous -- and [Kurnikova] will be famous," said Andrei Simanovich, an adidas spokesman in Moscow.

The competition over sponsoring promising Russian teams is also growing at a frenetic pace. In addition to its high-profile sponsorship of the Russian national team at the summer Olympics, Reebok in Russia has taken on more modest arrangements. Reebok signed a contract to sponsor and outfit the Russian soccer club Torpedo-Luzhniki, said Peter Tsanava, the professional sports supervisor for Reebok in Russia.

Reebok is also providing its sportswear to Saratov's basketball team, Aftodorozhnik, as well as to several top clubs in Ukraine and Moldova.

Nike, meanwhile, is sponsoring the CSKA and Dinamo basketball teams, while adidas provides its sportswear and equipment to soccer giants Spartak-Moscow and Dinamo-Kiev.

Even though these are big teams in Russia, they are greatly out of the public eye. Reebok's Tsanava said it is a sad scenario here that Mexican soap operas are more popular than major sporting events.

But his company as well as the others are doing what they can to promote sports in Russia, hoping that the payoff will eventually come.

"Unfortunately in Russia name recognition is very short; it needs to be developed," Tsanava said. "Russian customers are fashion driven. There's limited attention paid to local athletes compared to international stars. ... Local sports and athletes have to be shown more -- and that's what we're working on."