Athletes are brands, too: Q&A with adidas’ Michael Ehrlich


Earlier this week, opendorse caught up with Jeremy Darlow, the Director of Brand Marketing for Adidas Football and Baseball. Today we chatted with his good friend and co-worker, Michael Ehrlich. Ehrlich is the Director of PR at Adidas and is at the center of the internal newsroom at their US headquarters in Portland.

He talked about his role, the impact that social media has had on his industry and how athletes and companies can work together to grow their brands. The full Q&A is below.

What is your role as the Director of PR at Adidas? What does that entail?

As the Director of PR for Adidas America, I sit within our Portland-based newsroom and it consists of our PR team, our social strategy team, community managers and analytics team as well. It mirrors the PR and storytelling industry as a whole. The fact that PR, social, community management and analytics all sit together on the same team is something that makes my role and our company unique. We’re fully embracing this 24/7/365 storytelling point of view.

It’s something that we started at the 2014 World Cup in Rio. We gathered all of our PR, social, communication and digital folks from across the world in every market into one room during the World Cup. I was down there for 40 days, working side by side with my counterparts from other countries and all of our colleagues with the goal of being the most talked-about brand during the World Cup through a PR, social and digital lens.

Since then, we’ve rolled out this newsroom network across all of our key markets throughout the world. The US is lucky enough to be the only market with two locations. We have one here in Portland at our US headquarters and also one in New York.

I head up the PR team and in my team I have leads on each of our categories. I set the strategy as a market in our sport and style divisions. My team has PR leads from basketball and football but also our lifestyle, the originals group, action sports and our youth lifestyle spots.

There’s no offseason. No two days are alike. I laughed when I read that in Jeremy’s piece. It is a question that we get a lot. There really isn’t an average day. It’s certainly not a problem. It’s a gift.

How has your role changed since 2010 when social media was starting to grow, to today when social media has taken a huge role in PR and brand marketing?

My favorite part of developing as a professional and growing in my role is the evolution of storytelling in general. That encompasses PR, traditional media relations, social media, digital and community management. I love the fusion of all those together over the years and it’s something that I’ve been personally passionate about.

When I first started here, as you pointed out, it wasn’t the infancy but it was just the start of athletes, influencers, brands, teams and leagues becoming their own storytellers.

I have to ask how we can leverage that trend within the storytelling industry. How to use all of the new platforms and all of the new propositions to better, more efficiently, more authentically tell our stories.

Authenticity is the key with anything you do as a marketer, especially when you’re working with partners such as athletes or influencers and telling stories through their lens, through their voice or personality. Kids today and consumers today in general are so much more brand-aware and more aware of their own personal brand on social. Authenticity is key because consumers, kids, and athletes are going to see right through any brand messaging that is not authentic.

“Authenticity is key because consumers, kids, and athletes are going to see right through any brand messaging that is not authentic.”

That leads us to the hashtag, #AthletesAreBrandsToo, which you and Jeremy both share regularly. Could you tell me what that means to you and where that came from?

Jeremy and I have worked together professionally for so long, but at the end of the day we’re great friends and we’re fans of the industry as a whole – the sports marketing industry and social media in general. We have these constant conversations talking about the evolution and the development of the industry and storytelling and we feel that athletes are the next media outlets.

They’re their own brands and their own platforms both on social and in real life. It’s something that we continue to discuss and something that we’re both passionate about within these walls and externally as well. How can athletes at all levels leverage their platforms and really build their own personal brands which will last much longer than their actual athletic careers?

What specifically do you think a professional athlete, or even a college athlete, should be doing to prepare themselves and begin to build their own personal brand right now?

The first step is determining what you want to represent. Then, in your craft, determining what your differentiator is and really owning that and crafting a clear positioning and a clear message that you want to communicate at any level. With an athlete, with a school or league or whatever partner that you’re speaking to, it’s taking the time to map out what you want to represent and how you want to represent that.

Let’s use Damian Lillard’s partnership with Adidas as an example. Obviously there’s a clear, mapped-out guide to how they each want to represent each other and that results in really awesome content. What do you think brand partners like Adidas should be doing to help build their athlete-partners’ brand?

Using Adidas as an example, I think they do a great job of determining and identifying partners that are authentic to brand and to our brand. It’s not about finding every athlete out there, but finding the right athletes – Doing the research and having the conversation and determining what is the best fit.

“It’s not about finding every athlete out there, but finding the right athletes.”

I think Damian is the perfect example, overcoming what he has in his young career is incredibly admirable and the determination that he has exhibited at all levels of his career is a perfect fit for what we represent. He is one of the most authentic athletes you’re going to come across any sport. The partnership is incredibly real and authentic and the brand and the personality play off of each other in unison. We’re just getting started in his young career. Him being located in our backyard certainly helps the development but the value that he has, he could be playing anywhere and it would still be a perfect fit.

It’s a struggle for some athletes to create high quality content that is able to showcase them at a practice or a workout, or in Damian’s case, in the studio. What’s your recommendation to the athlete that wants to create awesome content but just doesn’t have the time or resources to put into it?

That’s a challenge but more than anything, it’s an opportunity. I think social offers that platform for anyone at any level. It doesn’t matter what school you attend or what professional market you play in. Social is the key to building your personal brand. Athletes have started to leverage that more and more. You’re seeing some athletes do it really well, creating a two-way conversation with their community and their fans, not just in their market but across the country and across the world.

The earlier they start that, it’s only going to help them with their career and once their athletic career is over at any level, they’re going to have the community already built and when they do start their next venture, they’re already going to have a community and support group to promote their next career move.

We’re seeing sports properties wanting to amplify some of their video content through their athlete alumni and the conversation is starting to perhaps use current student athletes to help share this personalized content. Do you see that as something benefits the property and the athlete when they both share high-quality content?

You guys see firsthand where you are, the passion and interest of the college fanbases. It’s not just in that college town, but across the country and across the world. I’m a USC grad, a proud alum but living in a state and a city full of Ducks and Beavers. I don’t really have a huge USC community but I am on the message boards and social platforms everyday. The more content they are able to produce and the more inside looks at their program and their brand, the better. That’s just speaking for one passionate alum in a separate state. Imagine that across the country and across the world.

There’s passion in the college sports fan base and in football in particular. The more inside access that programs, athletes and coaching staffs are able to provide, especially on social, it’s only going to help build their own brand, attract recruits and ultimately put Ws on the scoreboard.

“The more inside access that programs, athletes and coaching staffs are able to provide, especially on social, it’s only going to help build their own brand, attract recruits and ultimately put Ws on the scoreboard.”

If there’s an athlete, or several athletes, that you could pick that are understanding their brand and building that influence intentionally and well, who would you pick? Who is doing it best right now?

Damian is the case study. What he brings to the table both from a performance perspective on the court and from a lifestyle perspective. He’s fuses them so authentically. What’s great about him is that it’s not all about him. It’s about where he’s come from. The obstacles that he has overcome. It’s about his family. It’s about his fans. It’s about his community.

Using those all together really sets him apart from any athlete in any sport. Obviously sprinkling in everything that he has going on from a brand perspective – the signature shoe, with the design inspirations from his community and his fans, everything he does on the music scene – by far he is definitely someone to look at and model your social personality after. That’s for sure.

What’s next on the horizon for you? Do you have any big personal projects that you’re currently working on?

Nothing to share at this point, but you’re going to see the industry continue to take shape and I’m excited for what’s ahead both professionally and personally.

As cliche as it is, the sky really is the limit. That’s what’s so excited about social. There’s really no ceiling. You’re able to talk to somebody across the country and across the world. Sports will continue to become that example that social platforms and business experts continue to use test new ideas and collaborate on new programs.

We’re only getting started. It’s exciting and the industry continues to evolve every day. It definitely gets me excited to come to work everyday.

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