The Djokovic drama has given his brand exactly what he wants

Novak Djokovic has a reputation for being a wildcard both on and off the court. The Brand Builders general manger Charlotte Woods says we shouldn't be surprised by his recent visa saga.

There’s a history of Novak Djokovic making the news for his unpleasant off-court (and sometimes on-court) antics. “Djokovic? That’s the anti-vax tennis player, right?” “Isn’t he the one that thinks you can cleanse water with positive thinking?” “Oh, you mean the guy who decked a judge in the throat with a tennis ball. Yeah, he sucks.” 

Djokovic’s actions over the last week are very on brand. He already told us in 2020 that he wouldn’t be taking the COVID vaccine to get back on the court. And yet there’s been a chorus of premature celebrations about this visa drama marking the end of Djokovic’s career. We’re all a little too confident that he has damaged his brand beyond repair.  

This isn’t the end for him, whether we like it or not. He will continue to play, to get sponsored, to gain new Instagram followers and dominate media headlines.  

It would be different if he had the squeaky-clean image of athletes like Tiger Woods or Maria Sharapova (before their respective scandals). We were shocked to learn what Woods and Sharapova had been up to because their actions behind closed doors conflicted with what we saw in public. They built brands that were values-driven, ethical, trustworthy, the kind of person you’d let your kid look up to.  

But Djokovic hasn’t surprised us. He’s fed into an existing narrative about who he is, what he stands for and, apparently, what he’ll fall for.  

You can’t damage a brand that’s already known for inciting controversy about vaccines and temper tantrums that result in women getting hit in the throat with a tennis ball.  

If anything, he’s boosted his profile as a controversial figure. He has likely grown his fanbase to include antivaxxers and “freedom fighters”. Not a win, for most athletes, but Djokovic probably doesn’t mind the new company he keeps.  

But what about his sponsors? Surely, they’re madly prepping to drop him and distance themselves from the drama? None of his major sponsors, including Peugeot, Hublot and Lacoste, have given any signs that they’re planning to leave him behind. Djokovic is a gamble for sponsors, but they know that. Let’s give them some credit. He’s always been a risky asset.  

You don’t align your brand with a Djokovic and expect him to stay scandal-free. Some of them may have been counting on it. Afterall, the next time he plays, we’ll all be watching, whether we support him or mocking him in the Facebook comments. There are more eyes on him than ever and on the brands he endorses.

However, he has gifted us something to delight in: aiding and abetting in the downfall of a sports star.  

Historically, we hold athletes to a higher standard than the average Joe. They are ready-made role models as soon as they step on a court, a pitch, a field — it’s an unwritten clause in their contract. We expect them to be, well, perfect, or as close they can get.  

We dislike Djokovic because he has rebelled against that expectation, repeatedly.  

He could have used the media attention to speak about the thirty-three refugees stuck in the same detention facility he stayed in. Djokovic was released after four days. The refugees are housed there indefinitely.  

Footballer Craig Foster was one of the first people to call on Djokovic to put the spotlight back on Australia’s indefinite detention system. Djokovic never responded.  

You can’t expect a Djokovic to take on the brand of an athlete like Foster. We know Foster is a human rights advocate and values-driven. We expect him to do the right thing because of his track record. If Foster pulled a Djokovic we would be, rightfully, shocked.  

Brand is about consistency. We remember athletes for what they stand for, their actions, the messages they spread and their achievements within their sport. It’s when their actions are inconsistent that their reputation takes a hit.  

You can give Djokovic points for consistency.  

It’s unfortunate that this is the legacy he has chosen. Athlete brand is a vehicle for positive impact. Just look at Foster. He uses his platform to advocate for vital reforms to indefinite detention.  

Djokovic has chosen a different route and while it’s disappointing, it is his choice. And until those choices create big trouble for his sponsors, he’ll keep endorsing watches and French cars. 

As the saga closes in, prepare for Djokovic to do just fine brand-wise. We won’t see him embark on a PR apology tour. Get ready for him to lean into this updated (but not new) version of his brand harder than ever.    

Charlotte Woods is the general manager of The Brand Builders.


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