Why a Winter Olympics underdog can make a better brand ambassador

American snowboarder Red Gerard was the first athlete to win a gold medal at this year's Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang.

The ice hockey venue at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang (pic credit: IOC)
The ice hockey venue at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang (pic credit: IOC)
The new men’s snowboard slopestyle champion is just 17 years old. With 113,000 Instagram followers, Gerard is not exactly an unknown but neither was he – before Sunday morning – a big name. 

He is the first example in South Korea of a young athlete who will have a big impact for the brands that sponsor him (Oakley, Mountain Dew, Burton) without costing millions. 

Gerard’s success as the first Winter Olympic champion to be born this millennium was quickly followed by another teenager striking gold: 19-year-old French skier Perrine Laffont – with a modest-by-comparison 15,600 Instagram followers – triumphed in the women's moguls. 

There will doubtless be many more teenage underdogs-turned-top-dogs over the next fortnight. 
And they will resonate most with a certain demographic: their own. 

Brands that shift their focus away from mainstream sport, and from more established sports stars, will see there are plenty of options in Pyeongchang who speak the same language as their target audience – and through the same channels. 

This is part of the reason the Winter Olympics has more of a youth-focused feel to it, compared with the summer Games. 

Brands shouldn’t necessarily be going to the biggest names on the slopes – or, beyond South Korea, the pitch, court or track. 

In fact, the success of winning a medal is not even the most important thing. 

Who an athlete is away from their sport, what they represent and how they get their message out there is the key here. 

Mark McMorris, the Canadian who won bronze in the men’s snowboard slopestyle and, at 24, something of a veteran in this context, nearly died after crashing into a tree on a training run last March. 

McMorris broke his jaw and left arm, ruptured his spleen, suffered a pelvic fracture, rib fractures and a collapsed lung. 

He might not be the Winter Olympic champion many brands will look for, but his heroic comeback story is one of determination and redemption that his sponsors have tapped into and his 655,000 Instagram followers have followed in awe. 

Having a well-rounded personal ‘brand’ and being a lifestyle influencer in your own right is just as important as athletic achievement. 

Gerard and Laffont will not just influence people to get involved in snowboarding and skiing. 

They will inspire their audience to try new diets, workouts, energy drinks and skincare products. 
Joyously, they will do so with personality. 

They are not the same media-trained, tabloid-wary athletes we’re bombarded with. 

They are not afraid to show their personalities. Social media mean they will show and engage with the things that play out off-piste and off-camera. 

Conversation doesn’t end at the bottom of the slope. Interest extends far beyond athletic contests. 

Partnering with an up-and-coming Winter Olympic underdog is, quite simply, a better way for brands to tap into the Pyeongchang party. 

Andy Jephson is head of sport & culture at Exposure

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