Sponsor Hugo Boss stands by Joseph Schooling as experts say it's not end of the line for his brand
Noting some positive online reactions to news of the Olympic champion's drug use, branding specialists add that he can repair his image and bounce back from the incident.
SINGAPORE: While Olympic champion Joseph Schooling’s confession to drug use might have tarnished his reputation, the 27-year-old Singaporean swimmer still has a chance to repair his image and bounce back, according to brand experts CNA spoke to.
One of his sponsors, Hugo Boss, has also affirmed that its partnership and support for Schooling remains "strong and unwavered" and that the company believes he will deliver on his promise to make amends.
Schooling has been the brand's ambassador since 2018.
"It's not the end of the line for him, from a branding perspective, because he has a lifetime value as the superhero from the little red dot that did what the Michael Phelps of this world achieved," said international communications expert Lars Voedisch on Wednesday (Aug 31), a day after news broke of Schooling's admission that he had taken cannabis in May.
“Everyone in Singapore remembers that photo of him as a young swimmer standing next to Michael Phelps and then later, he won the gold in the pool," Mr Voedisch added, referring to the American swimmer whom Schooling idolised and later defeated en route to his historic 2016 Olympic victory in the 100m butterfly.
"So it’s really an 'against all odds' kind of hero story that will always be in people’s hearts and that is what makes it valuable for brands.
“It doesn’t matter what happens to him, Joseph Schooling will always be Singapore’s first Olympic gold medallist and nobody can take that away," he added.
Schooling and fellow national swimmer Amanda Lim had been investigated by the Central Narcotics Bureau for possible offences related to the consumption of cannabis.
He confessed to consuming the drug while he was on short-term disruption from full-time National Service (NS) to train and participate in the Southeast Asian Games.
Schooling also issued a public apology on Tuesday, shortly after statements issued by the Defence Ministry and Sport Singapore.
"I am sorry that my actions have caused hurt to everyone around me, especially to my family and the young fans who look up to me," he said.
While public sentiment on the news of Schooling's drug use has been mixed, Mr Voedisch noted that some comments online were neutral or even positive to a certain extent.
“The public saw that he came out and admitted to it, so it wasn’t like he was officially exposed,” he said. “They saw him taking the first step, which creates a new possible narrative of a phoenix rising from the ashes.”
Deloitte Southeast Asia's sports business group leader James Walton said that sponsors like Hugo Boss, which is an adult-oriented brand, might find it easier to continue commercial relations with Schooling compared to a more family-oriented sponsor like Milo.
Speaking in a radio interview with CNA938, Mr Walton noted that he had not observed any calls on social media for sponsors to cease working with Schooling.
"There hasn't really been an element of cancel culture about this. I think people recognise that people can make mistakes and that he has been transparent."
Communications expert Steeve Cupaiolo said while apologising and admitting was a good first step, what is needed next is for Schooling to explain why he did it.
“Athletes are often held to higher standards than the rest of us and they have to be accountable to the public because they are often seen as national icons,” said Mr Cupaiolo, who is the chief executive officer of marketing agency Silk Road Sports Consulting.
“It was brave for Joseph Schooling to admit it because it’s not easy to say that you made a mistake, especially when it’s so public.
“But to avoid a big crisis, he should also be as transparent as possible, and explain why he did it,” added Mr Cupiaolo.
WHAT NEXT FOR HIS SPONSORSHIPS?
Since shooting to fame in 2016 with his Olympic gold, several brands including Hugo Boss, Nestle and Yakult have placed their support behind Schooling.
But news of his confession to drug use has sparked discussion around whether brands should distance themselves from the athlete.
DBS bank told CNA that its partnership with Schooling ended last year before he enlisted for NS in January.
Responding to queries from CNA, Hugo Boss said its partnership and support for Schooling remains "strong and unwavered".
"Joseph has made a mistake but what's important is that he has taken ownership of it," said the fashion house's Southeast Asia managing director Steven Lam.
"Over the years, he has always been a positive influence in and out of the pool. He has inspired many kids to believe in themselves, to work hard and to chase their dreams."
Mr Lam added: "We have taught future generations that it’s ok to make mistakes, to own up, but you will have to take responsibility and more importantly, fix it.
"It will be a long road ahead for Joseph but we believe he will now show us how he will make good his promise to rebuild the trust with the people who believe in him."
CNA has contacted other brands associated with Schooling.
The communications experts CNA spoke to said the fate of his current sponsorship deals would depend on the individual brands and their values.
In some cases, brands may decide to terminate a contract with an athlete or a celebrity out of concern that their reputation might affect the company’s image, said Mr Voedisch, who is the managing director of public relations firm PRecious Communications.
“The companies have to decide what is the alignment they want, is it about certain values or access to the athlete or celebrity’s target audience,” he said.
“A company whose primary focus is on young children, for example, might be more sensitive to incidents like the one that happened with Joseph Schooling - compared to a beer company."
But terminating a contract to save a company’s image might also end up backfiring.
“The company that drops partners at the first sign of thunder might also be seen as not sustainable or not really committed or even hypocrites because only the person who doesn’t make mistakes should cast the first stone,” said Mr Voedisch.
Experts highlighted that for some brands, the ongoing saga could even make Schooling more attractive as a partner, as it could render him more relatable and approachable to the public.
“Right now, he’s like a hot iron that no new brands would want to touch,” said Mr Voedisch. “But for the brands that he’s currently working with, what happened might actually increase his value because he becomes more human.
“Most heroes become more close to our hearts when we see them making mistakes and they are not those untouchable supergods," he added. "They have flaws like you and me."