Wednesday
Feb272013

Goal To Gold: Can Lionel Messi Build His International Brand In The U.S.?

By Barry Janoff

(Originally published at MediaPost)

February 27, 2013: Lionel Messi is regarded in most circles as the greatest soccer player in the world and, arguably, among the Top Five men ever to play the game.

Messi, a naive of Argentina who plays for FC Barcelona and the Argentina national soccer team, earns in excess of $41 million (U.S.), almost equally split between his soccer contract and off-the-pitch endorsements. He has deals with such companies as adidas, PepsiCo, Procter & Gamble's Head & Shoulders, Herbalife, EA Sports, Audemars Piguet watches and Dolce & Gabanna. In addition, he is a global UNICEF goodwill ambassador.

In January, he was named the winner of the FIFA Ballon d’Or, international soccer's highest individual honor, becoming the first player to win the trophy four consecutive years.

However, while most of the world is well aware of his on-field exploits and subsequent marketing prowess, he still has a lot of work to do in the U.S.

This summer, the athlete known as "Leo" will take a big step in establishing his brand in America.

Messi will hit Chicago on July 6 and Los Angeles July 13 to play friendly matches along with 35 of his closest friends. The roster is likely to include many of the other top-level players against whom Messi competes with and against on a regular basis, such as Dani Alves, José Manuel Pinto and Alexis Sanchez, plus Didier Drogba, Carlos Bocanegra, Alessandro Nesta and Radamel Falcao.

Dubbed "Messi & Friends," the events in Soldier Field and the Los Angeles Coliseum will benefit the Leo Messi Foundation, which aids "kids and adolescents who are in a [health] risk situation."

Both U.S. exhibitions will be preceded by invitation-only dinners to help raise money for the Messi Foundation. Organizers also are currently working on "marketing opportunities" to include TV, Internet and social media integration.

However, even with his global aura, Messi's presence as an endorser in the U.S. has had to date only relatively minimal impact. The Head & Shoulders deal, signed late last year, is anchored by an important domestic marketing segment in that it targets Hispanic males in the U.S. "The fact that Leo is a fan of Head & Shoulders, and now our ambassador, gives us a tremendous opportunity to be able to create a personal connection with our Hispanic male consumers,” Michael Saabia, Head & Shoulders brand manager, said when the deal was launched.

Messi's marketing presence in the U.S. recently got another boost via a current campaign for Turkish Airlines. The effort includes a commercial with Kobe Bryant in which they play a game of one-upmanship for the attention of a young fan (who eventually is won over by a stewardess with ice cream).

Messi has just unveiled his own signature line from adidas — joining the NBA's Derrick Rose and David Beckham as the only athletes to be so designated by the global sportswear and footwear company. The line hits retail on March 1. The release comes with some marketing support, mainly driven by adidas' Web site and related social media.

“After setting a scoring world record and winning his fourth consecutive FIFA Ballon d'Or, Lionel Messi has truly earned icon status in the world of sports,” Ernesto Bruce, director of soccer for adidas America, said in a statement. “We are proud to celebrate Messi’s accomplishments with a signature collection showcasing technology and design that mirror his ferocious speed and natural, fluid style of play. The adidas Messi collection brings together the best in performance technology with world class design.”

According to Messi, "I'm excited about playing in [the U.S.] and showcasing many of the greatest stars of our sport. It's also important for me to connect with soccer fans in the USA and to promote the work of my Foundation, and for that I am very thankful for this opportunity."

Organizers of Messi & Friends, which also is scheduled to make stops in Peru and Columbia, also see the benefits in other areas.

According to Armando Almirall, president and CEO for Mindpix Corp., which is working with Numero 5 and ZZYX Entertainment to present the tour, "This will be an amazing event for everyone to see globally. Lionel Messi, in my opinion, is one of the best soccer players in the world and this event will provide fans, sponsors, networks the perfect opportunity to enjoy an All-Star event prior to the FIFA World Cup in 2014 -- all for a great cause."

Messi & Friends was founded in 2007 and has played some dates in the U.S. But at 25, even though Messi is not likely to leave the international soccer stage to play for a U.S. team any time soon, that day is potentially getting closer.

"I'm excited about playing in [the U.S.] and showcasing stars of our sport. It's also important for me to connect with fans in the USA and to promote my Foundation."

That type of heady move would not be without precedent. Beckham joined Major League Soccer's Los Angeles Galaxy in 2007 and immediately boosted not only his domestic marketing status, but that of MLS. And back in the day, such global stars as Pele, Giorgio Chinaglia, George Best and Johan Cruyff finished out their careers in the U.S. (in the original North American Soccer League) and enjoyed varying degrees of U.S. marketing support.

For the world's greatest soccer play, Messi & Friends ultimately could be a step in that direction.

Said Sergio Codino, vp for Numero 5, "This event will feature the world's greatest players in a festival of soccer, the most popular sport on the planet. The Messi & Friends exhibition, much like the NFL Pro-Bowl or the MLB All-Star Game, will provide fans with an unparalleled opportunity to witness the greatest athletes in the sport of soccer together on the field of competition before the FIFA World Cup Brazil 2014."

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