There can be no doubt but that Novak Djokovic is a Big Brand.
In the recent firestorm over Nole’s opinion about prize money for men and women tennis players, however, the Big Brand blundered badly. In an interview after Indian Wells, he basically set himself up to be object of revilement by fans of women’s tennis around the world.
This started me thinking about how brands can express unpopular opinions without offending half the world. On the one hand, it would seem to be impossible. Djokovic’s stance on prize money for women players is not illogical – men attract bigger audiences to tennis and therefore should be rewarded more. Should he just shut up about it and not say what he thinks?
A brand has certain values and a certain character. In this way, a brand should be encouraged to express itself according to those values. Novak Djokovic – as a brand, not as a person or tennis player – stands for a certain number of things. His values include excellence, outspokenness, and a (slight) sense of humor.
Each of these values has a dark side and one that should be kept under wraps as much as possible. Excellence can indicate arrogance and a degree of ruthlessness that Djokovic will let out of the bag from time to time. Outspokenness can be a good thing and show sincerity. But it can also quite easily become a liability when the brand’s sincere opinion is politically incorrect. And a sense of humor is always subjective. Sometimes it is just not funny.
So how does a brand like Djokovic make any response to the question of equal prize money without sounding like a misogynist, male chauvinist, and just plain thoughtless?
There are, in my view, three ways to attack the question –
1. Shut Your Trap
He could have just said he does not want to talk about it. By not saying anything, he takes no position and allows people to think what they want. Detractors will still say that he is guilty by omission, but fans will call him wise and circumspect.
Eventually, however, avoidance will lead a brand to trouble. The most important aspect of a brand is that it can be trusted. Remember the beating Nike took over child labor in Vietnam? They denied. They were found out. And they backpedaled. It was not an easy time for one of the world’s Big Brands.
2. Deflect and Dodge
He could have used the uncomfortable question to redirect attention to the cause of the problem. Should they have equal prizes? Who decides this anyway? Shouldn’t we be asking them what their reasons are? And by creating a media furor, does it actually help? And why is the opinion of one player in the circuit actually make any difference?
Deflection does not reveal his true thoughts, but it is a form of avoidance. At one point, some clever media person will trap him into a Yes/No question on it. As long as the deflection remains smart and on-topic, he will get away with it for longer. It can create distractions that sideline the bigger issues
3. Think it Through
This is, by far, the best way to deal with uncomfortable questions. He needs to be well-versed on the issues and able to discuss them intelligently. He can thereby demonstrate that a) it is an important issue, b) he thinks about it, c) his opinion ultimately is informed by real facts and the reality of the sport. In the midst of this, he could even slip in his real opinion about the prize money, but wrap it in undisputable facts about the subject.
In short, he will have to study. His handlers, if he has any, should prepare him for this. There are not 360 burning issues in professional tennis – there are only a few big ones, and he should have been prepped in his response.
As it is, Djokovic chose Number 4 – Blurt it out and backpedal. The next day, Djokovic came back to apologize, blaming adrenalin over a big win. My bad.
By doing this, Djokovic did further damage to his own brand not only by having to apologize for something he actually believes, but by eroding public trust in his brand. People will start to think: who is this guy? They will doubt his statements. They will trust him just a little less.
In branding, trust is hard won and must be guarded carefully. It means sticking by your announced values and living with them every day. No one could ever be overly shocked by Jean-Paul Gautier when he would say outlandish things – that IS his brand, the bad boy. We expect it from him. With a great tennis player, we expect him to be dedicated to fairness and sportsmanship. That is also part of Nole’s brand whether he likes it or not.
Can he say whatever he wants whenever he wants? Clearly he can and he does. And we want our star brands to say what they think. But if he insists on doing so without regard to the fallout, he might not become the beloved figure that he seems to want to be. We want him to speak his mind, of course.
But we want to be able to nod with him too.