The term ‘personal brand’ was coined on behalf of sports stars, usually mononymous ones, whose public and celebrity status supersedes any team they represent. Endorsements, commercial activities, relationship status or off-pitch antics all contribute to building personal brands and private incomes of these bankable superstars, leading them to acquire an almost mythical aura that seemingly infiltrates every corner of the globe and popular culture.
Cristiano Ronaldo was introduced to 25,000 excited fans in KSA as the newest signee for Club Al-Nassr. After putting pen to paper, he became the highest-paid professional footballer — ever — and his contract includes off-field promotional activities as well as playing commitments.
Nobody in football understands personal branding like Ronaldo. With only 65 per cent of his earnings coming from his playing career to date, he has cultivated and managed high-profile commercial endorsements alongside his own CR7 brand creation, selling underwear, denim and more — emblazoned with his initials and signature shirt number.
However, professional success did not equate to likeability for Ronaldo. A shift in public perception for people who have managed their careers so carefully is never by accident. Ronaldo improved his standings offfield by employing the like, know and trust factor, surprised us with status updates as a new father, and engaged directly with fans and charities. He is the most followed person in the world on Instagram with 546 million followers.
All in all, a brand match made of gold for Al Nassr and KSA on the world sporting stage. On the heels of a hugely positive FIFA World Cup experience in the Middle East and international inbound tourism promotion, the attachment of instantly recognisable sporting names to the Kingdom looks sure to attract more of the ilk. Did the world know Saudi had a football league at all? Could they name any clubs? They can now.
The transition of brand Ronaldo into a likeable family man, moving to the region after ‘conquering Europe’ in football — until recently, a sport not positively associated with the GCC — is a story of maturity and growth. We can’t ignore the fact that this move is perfect timing, one that overwhelms the negativity of his last 12 months in the English Premier League. A flash of the ‘old’ Cristiano led to a parting of ways with Manchester United in a public media move against his employers, which would essentially be gross misconduct in any contractual agreement — behaviour completely against the Arab culture, yet seemingly ignored in favour of the benefits for Al Nassr.
After a settling-in period, the hype has certainly lessened. Al Nassr head coach Rudi Garcia has commented publicly that Ronaldo still has one eye on European football before his expected retirement, and whilst he eventually opened his scorecard, it has taken longer than most expected.
Have there been more goals? Four last week. Will there be a positive elevation of the Saudi sporting scene on a global scale? Absolutely. Will KSA tourism and culture benefit from the ultimate in social media influencing and exposure? You bet. Will Cristiano himself integrate with Brand Ronaldo positively at this new stage of his career, and ultimately his retirement from the pitch altogether? Definitely.
The cynical will say it was a move made for money. That the old CR ego would not allow him to play at any other level, or indeed ‘brand’, that was not the best or the highest of wages. Lionel Messi is a team player. Cristiano Ronaldo is a ‘me first’ and ‘me second’ character. How will this play into his role within a country that now has so much growth and promise on the world stage? A mature Ronaldo, and his fresh new start should lead to the amplification of his role as an empathic ambassador — for the sport, for the country and for its values… and he must uphold them.
There is nothing more inclusive than sport, and nobody currently bigger than Cristiano Ronaldo. On a mission alongside his new paymasters to increase the kingdom’s visibility in the global sports and entertainment fields, he has promised to encourage further developments across the country, not only in football. Without a doubt, this will also encourage a slew of other sporting greats to follow.
Brand Ronaldo needs to see an adaptation to his new surroundings not as a challenge but rather as an opportunity for growth: growing into a new phase of maturity and sporting ambassadorship as a cause for good amongst his new neighbours and the GCC as a whole, taking the opportunity to cement himself as a philanthropist and role model for the region’s youth, and to show the rest of the world that sport has no borders.
Robyn Abou Chedid is a Dubai-based executive coach, consumer behaviour specialist, personal brand strategist to C-level executives, and founder of GUIDED.
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