No easy Oscar for brand Pistorius
Even if he is convicted, Oscar will still have a life, unlike Reeva, even if it is behind bars, writes Thebe Ikalafeng.
This has been a big Oscar week. For Africa, it has been a glorious time at the Oscars with the triumph of Kenyan Lupita Nyong’o and diasporan Steve McQueen for their stand-out Best Picture, 12 Years a Slave.
For Paralympic star Oscar Pistorius, it has been the an unimaginable beginning of his trial for the alleged premeditated murder of his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp.
It is the beginning of the emergence of new heroes – Nyong’o and McQueen, and the demise of another, Pistorius.
Nyong’o and McQueen’s brands are on the rise.
Irrespective of whether he is acquitted or convicted, this is the end of Brand Pistorius as we’ve known it.
It is another tragic episode in the celebrity brand soap opera that’s claimed the reputations of American football great OJ Simpson and Lance Armstrong, and scalped Tiger Wood’s pristine brand.
During his trial, Brand Oscar will haemorrhage like no celebrity brand before him.
The damage to his person and brand will be more devastating than Armstrong’s doping scandal and last longer than Woods’s infidelity shock.
Even if he is acquitted, like Simpson, it will leave an indelible public scar and be the personal burden of a lifetime.
While Barry Roux, his advocate – at a reputed cost of R31 900 a day – will do his utmost to limit the criminal damage, he will not be able to do much for Pistorius’s reputation.
The legal counter-punches between Roux and prosecuting advocate Gerrie Nel, and the array of more than 100 State witnesses, will puncture Pistorius’s carefully orchestrated public image – revealing a flawed human being with a private image that’s very contrary to his public one, which earned him global adoration and millions in the bank.
At stake is not the millions he stands to lose.
At the height of his global repute and athletic exploits, Pistorius commanded a reputed R21 million a year through appearances and sponsorships income as the lead pitchman for British Telecom (BT), global sports brand Nike, French designer Thierry Mugler, sunglasses manufacturer Oakley, and South African media brand M-Net.
When the trial is over and Roux and his team have submitted their invoice, there won’t be any money left.
If acquitted, Pistorius could find another way to recoup those millions – in another business or by peddling his murder and trial experiences in a tell-all memoir (à la OJ Simpson) or appearances.
But his valuable heroic reputation as “part man, part god” or the regrettable “bullet in the chamber”, respectively by Mugler and Nike, is no longer.
All dropped him in a heartbeat after the fatal shooting. Any continued association would have been detrimental to their brands.
This was not the Oscar for which they signed up.
At stake is not his athletic career. Pistorius confounded doubters, broke barriers and triumphed over adversity – turning his disability into an ability to inspire millions, becoming an athlete to compete in abled and disabled sport at the 2012 London Olympics.
If acquitted, Pistorius can always resume his athletic career.
The lucrative invitations may be few, but with an acquittal and a forgiving or even morbid public he should still be able to compete.
At stake is not his freedom. Whether he is acquitted or convicted, unlike his victim Reeva Steenkamp, he will still have the freedom of life.
If acquitted, as he has already done before the start of his trial, he will be able to go to his old joints and jaunts, on holiday, and even find love or companionship again.
If convicted, he will still be able to receive visits from friends, family and fans, to work out, to study – to create a new life behind bars.
At 27 years of age, if he receives at worst a life sentence – 25 years – he’ll still be able to resume his life at 52.
At stake is reputation. In his short 27 years, Pistorius’s mesmerising athletic performance and triumph over his disability has earned him a reputation as a winner. And everybody loves a winner.
This tragedy and evolving trial have painted a new picture of a manipulative, volatile, aggressive and violent Pistorius.
While his petulant outburst after losing to Brazilian Alan Oliveira at the London Olympics painted him a sore loser, his eventual mea culpa and record-breaking closing performance reaffirmed his reputation as a winner – on the athletic field.
A brand is a reputation. It is a legacy. At its best, a clear, consistent and desirable reputation in any field – athletic, artistic or business – can generate unimaginable returns.
It is a valuable asset.
A recent survey of Africa’s wealthiest celebrities indicates just how much that is worth.
While not nearly as stratospheric as their American and European counterparts, African sportsmen, mostly in football, are not doing too badly.
The top five are reputedly Ghana’s Asamoah Gyan at $16m (R170m), Liberia’s American football player Tamba Hali ($16m), Ivory Coast’s Yaya Touré ($15m), Togo’s Emmanuel Adebayor ($13m) and Cameroon’s Samuel Eto’o ($13m).
Globally, Tiger Woods leads the rankings with an estimated $78m a year, followed by Roger Federer ($71m), basketballers Kobe Bryant ($61m) and Lebron James ($59m) and American footballer Drew Brees ($51m).
The key difference between European and American athletes compared with African athletes is that they often earn as much as 80 percent of their income from endorsements.
The athletes with the best reputations, ability and following attract the largest share.
But it is not just limited to sports. Global athletes such as Woods and Pistorius, who can transcend their occupation, command enviable wealth beyond their needs and styles.
George Clooney’s deal with Nespresso, which gave him shares in the business instead of fees, has added to his enormous wealth.
Rapper 50 Cent is reputed to have made $500m when, instead of taking a fee to endorse Glacéau Vitaminwater, he opted for shares and ultimately sold his stake when Glacéau sold the brand to Coca-Cola for $4.1 billion.
Forbes Magazine estimates that Beyoncé and Jay-Z earned a whopping combined $78m in 2012.
Woods is the first athlete to earn more than $1bn in winnings and endorsements.
Local comedian Trevor Noah is reputed to have earned as much as $300 000 for endorsing Cell C’s ill-fated endorsement campaign.
In business, Virgin maverick Richard Branson is an undisputed business brand.
But such wealth comes with mutual obligations.
When celebrities engage with one another’s brands, they are essentially leveraging one another’s images and reputations, and thus have a responsibility to live up to them, and to protect them. It’s a commercial contract.
As superstar Jay-Z put it: “I’m a business, man.”
Pistorius’s business has been dealt a devastating blow.
If acquitted, he may be able to recover it somewhat – albeit never to what it once was. But Reeva Steenkamp’s family will never be able to recover their loss.
Unlike his “amnesia” over his iPhone password, hopefully Pistorius will never forget “the pain and anguish he has inflicted on me”, as a broken June Steenkamp, Reeva’s mother, pleaded.
Hopefully he will never forget the damage he did to Brand South Africa.
As Shakespeare wrote in Othello, “But he that filches from me my good name robs me of that which not enriches him and makes me poor indeed.”
Oscar’s actions have robbed him of his once-valuable name. This tragedy is now his legacy.
* Ikalafeng is a global African branding and reputation architect, adviser and author, and founder of Brand Africa and Brand Leadership Group. @ThebeIkalafeng
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.