A year ago, Dannon signed up a new pitchman for its Oikos brand Greek yogurt: Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton. Talk about good timing.
Since then, Newton has led his team to a 17-1 record and is likely to win the NFL’s Most Valuable Player award. And next Sunday, millions will be watching worldwide as the rising star leads his team against the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl 50.
“We’re always hopeful the choices we make will turn out as the best possible scenario,” Dannon spokesman Michael Neuwirth said. “And this was absolutely the best possible scenario.”
After this year’s performance, more companies will be looking to join Dannon in Newton’s endorsement portfolio, adding to names such as Under Armour, Gatorade, Beats by Dre and Belk. Newton, experts say, is emerging as one of the most marketable stars in the NFL – and sports in general.
Newton has everything a company wants in an NFL pitchman, said Chicago-based sports business consultant Marc Ganis. He plays the premier position of quarterback, is good looking, has a trend-setting sense of style and even a catchy first name.
“He’s the future face of the National Football League,” Ganis said.
But before he can become the league’s biggest star, Newton, 26, will have to surpass his Super Bowl opponent, Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, a legend on the field and an endorser so deft he can get you humming an insurance company’s jingle.
With an endorsement list that includes Nationwide, Papa John’s pizza, Nike and Buick automobiles, Manning, 39, racked up the most off-field earnings of any NFL player last year, bringing in about $12 million, according to Forbes magazine. But Newton is close on his heels with about $10 million, the magazine estimates.
All of their endorsement dollars, of course, come on top of what their teams pay them. In June, Newton signed a five-year, $103.8 million contract extension that includes $60 million in guaranteed money.
During his breakout season, Newton has soared in public awareness and other benchmarks, according to an international index called CelebrityDBI. Through consumer surveys, the measure produced by research firm Repucom collects data on more than 6,000 athletes, models, actors, musicians, fictional characters and others worldwide.
In September, about 39 percent of U.S. consumers polled were “aware” of Newton by name or face, according to Repucom. As of this month, that figure was up to 54 percent, eighth among all NFL players. He is third in the “trendsetter” category.
In comparison, Manning has 85 percent awareness, behind only New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady.
Manning has Newton beat in terms of general market awareness, but the Panthers quarterback has a stronger showing with younger consumers, said Peter Laatz, an executive vice president at Repucom.
“Cam is just talking to a whole different group of people,” Laatz said.
Their recent commercials display their contrasting styles. In a Nationwide spot, Manning bemoans a bad golf shot while wearing preppy shorts. In an ad for headphones maker Beats by Dre, an iron-pumping Newton takes on critics, saying: “Too bad they don’t make Band-Aids for feelings.”
Newton is strong as an endorser already, but he has upside as Manning and Brady near the end of their careers, said David Carter, a principal with the Sports Business Group, a consulting firm. Manning, in particular, could retire after the Super Bowl or play only one more year.
“In post-retirement they will both continue to do well, but Newton will have greater control of the proverbial stage,” Carter said. “If he can continue to perform well, and do so with charisma while avoiding issues off the field, his long-term potential as an endorser is extremely strong.”
Carlos Fleming, Newton’s marketing representative, said when he talks to companies about his client they like the fun and fresh attitude he brings to the football field and his appeal with kids and young adults.
Fleming noted that some observers have labeled Newton “polarizing,” alluding to the reaction of some fans to his showy celebrations for touchdowns and first downs. But he contends Newton’s detractors are a small minority, pointing to a recent Twitter poll by ESPN’s Darren Rovell. The survey found that 87 percent of respondents either liked or didn’t mind Newton’s disposition on the field, while only 13 percent took issue.
Since being drafted by the Panthers in 2011, Newton’s marketing team has had a strategy of slowly building his endorsement list, starting with products like Under Armour athletic apparel. The former Auburn University star was also eager to pitch Gatorade because of the “legacy of iconic athletes that have been ambassadors” for the sports drink maker, said Fleming, senior vice president of talent marketing at WME-IMG.
Newton has purposefully endorsed companies in the Charlotte market such as Belk and Carolinas HealthCare System, Fleming said, and the quarterback’s corporate partners typically contribute to his charitable initiatives as part of their contracts.
Newton’s marketing team also has a commitment not to overload the quarterback, allowing him to focus on his day job, Fleming said. Three companies approached the player during the season about doing national TV commercials, but his representatives didn’t pursue them, he said.
“There are a lot of brands talking to us about working with Cam, but we will stay measured in our approach,” he said. “I see us adding one to two partners moving forward after the season.”
Two of Newton’s existing sponsors recently debuted new TV spots – Dannon and Beats by Dre – and Gatorade has one coming out soon, Fleming said.
One facet of Newton’s endorsement game that still needs work is his social media profile, said Laatz, of Repucom. The quarterback has 1.8 million Instagram followers and more than 500,000 on Twitter, but some celebrities have millions more.
The Panthers QB will also need to do more than just perform on the field to jump to the next level, said Matt Delzell, managing director at The Marketing Arm, a marketing firm that partners with Repucom on the CelebrityDBI Index. Manning, for example, has been a host on “Saturday Night Live” and is likely to move on to the broadcast booth when he retires.
“It’s going to take more than one season, and it will take him doing more outside football,” Delzell said. “Peyton’s showed that side of himself.”
Fleming said Newton has a sizable social media following on Twitter and Instagram but acknowledges he could do more. Newton, however, is more focused on football for now, he said.
As for expanding into other areas, Newton already has a 20-episode TV show coming to Nickelodeon this fall. “I Wanna Be” will follow Newton “as he takes real kids on the ride of their lives to help make their dreams come true,” the network said in September. Charlotte kids will be part of the program, Fleming said.
“That show is really going to help continue to build Cam’s positioning in the youth market,” he said. After the show debuts, Fleming expects Newton will add more youth-related endorsements, such as toys, in 2017.
Of course, to truly become a dominant NFL endorser, Newton will need to win a championship, experts said. He gets his first crack next Sunday.
“Ultimately, those guys that he probably wants to be compared to – Manning and Brady – they’ve won,” said Delzell. “They’ve lost some, but they’ve won some. You can’t be put in that category if you’re not a Super Bowl winner. That’s how NFL quarterbacks are ultimately judged.”