With all due respect and apologies, a triple whammy was served up in Boston today: Tom Brady is leaving the New England Patriots, the coronavirus has shuttered bars on St. Patrick’s Day and an unseen contagion is in place. But while Brady won’t win any more titles for New England, his branding story is just getting started. By contrast, the Patriots’ branding problems are just beginning, experts say.
“Any time the brand rests on the shoulders of one person, the person is responsible for the brand,” said Robert Passikoff, CEO of brand consultancy Brand Keys, told PYMNTS. “People don’t see the distance between the brand and the person. The strength of the person is the strength of the brand.”
Brady announced on social media that he won’t re-sign with the Pats for the 2020 season after 20 years with the team, although he didn’t say where he’ll play instead. The superstar quarterback is leaving with six Super Bowl rings, a slew of league records and no apparent heir in place (although his backup, Jarrett Stidham, has shown promise).
But perhaps more importantly, from a business standpoint, Brady is walking away with a lot of the Patriots’ brand equity. Although Pats coach Bill Belichick is a recognizable face, he doesn’t have the cross-cultural appeal that Brady held. For two decades, “Tom Terrific” was for all intents and purposes the Patriots brand – consistent, attractive, excellent and winning.
According to Passikoff, whose company runs the annual 100 Most Loyal Brand Index, you would have to go back to Wendy’s CEO Dave Thomas’ death in 2002 or Martha Stewart’s 2004 jail sentence to find a comparable situation in which a company lost one person who was so integral to its brand.
And when Wendy’s and Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia lost their star players, “both of them hit the skids,” Passikoff pointed out.
For example, Stewart’s dish towels, glue guns, aprons, lawn furniture and sheets were all the rage in the 1990s and early 2000s, and after Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia’s 1999 IPO, her stamp of approval was worth $2 billion. But then Stewart went to prison for five months in connection with an insider trading scandal, and by 2015, the company sold for just $353 million.
“Of course, Brady leaves a legacy of excellence and left on good terms,” Passikoff added. “Now he’s his own man and his own brand. What happens to the Patriots remains to be seen.”
The Pats have been a branding powerhouse with Brady in the lineup. The organization ranked No. 1 on Forbes’ list of NFL team valuations at $4.1 billion, just behind the Dallas Cowboys. But according to Passikoff, the Patriots will need to craft a new branding strategy – and fast – to make up for their star quarterback’s departure.
After all, Brady is arguably the most popular player in the NFL. According to the league, his jersey had the highest sales in 2019, beating Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, the reigning Super Bowl MVP.
Brady’s list of current endorsement partners also includes Under Armour, Molecule Mattresses, Upper Deck and International Watch Company. The UA deal includes an exclusive Brady line of athletic gear, while “Tom Terrific” moved his mattress allegiance from Simmons to Molecule in 2018 in exchange for an equity stake.
Then there is Brady’s TB12 Inc., which sells fitness supplements and runs high-end fitness centers on Boston’s tony Boylston Street and near the Patriots’ Gillette Stadium. Brady has also launched his own production company, 199 Productions, to develop documentaries and films.
Branding experts agree that Brady has set up his personal brand for a thriving post-retirement life.
“Where football brands tend to be macho, Brady’s is holistic. Stretching your muscles, not bulking them. Drinking lots of water and shunning sugar, caffeine and alcohol,” notes Fortune. “Just as affluent women turn to Gwyneth Paltrow and Goop for a mix of aspiration, soft science and merch, men will have Brady (though the brand will offer services for women, too).”
The magazine adds that “like Paltrow, Brady has Hollywood looks, fashion cachet and mass appeal. He has 6.6 million Instagram followers, and jerseys featuring his number, 12, are the NFL's bestsellers.”
Harry Poole, vice president at Alexandria, Virginia-based RedPeg Marketing, says Brady “is going after a space no athlete has owned before. He’s connecting how all aspects of life – eating, sleeping, thinking and working out – relate to how you perform. And because of the dual focus on performance and longevity, TB12 has the potential to speak to athletes who are young and those trying to still perform the way they did in their prime.”
As for the football team that Brady leaves behind, Poole pointed out that the Patriots have huge financial resources and a sports-hungry fan base. Although the Pats might be shaky out of the gate without Brady, he noted, like their former quarterback, the team has had a longtime winning record.