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Making a splash in marketing: How Schooling keeps his authenticity in check

We sat patiently among several other publications as the athletes made their way onto stage on a bright Wednesday afternoon. We had come to witness Canon sponsor the Singapore Bowling Federation, and simultaneously, bring on board Joseph Schooling (pictured) – Singapore’s very own boy wonder – in the latest sponsorship deal with Canon.

The Singaporean 2016 Olympic gold medallist will be fronting Canon’s brand campaigns for the next three years until 2021. This will mean the public will see the young swimmer splashed across the brand’s marketing campaigns across print and digital platforms. Schooling will also support Canon’s events through appearances for deeper engagement with the Canon community.

After a quick 30-minute Q&A with the media on what the partnership entailed (and a polite decline on sharing the price tag of the partnership), we were escorted to a well-lit quiet corner of the room. Not long after, Schooling arrived with his PR representative from Full Circle PR by his side. “It is an honour to meet you,” I say, as I shake his hand.

Humble and relatable, the young athlete has in recent years captured the fancy of marketers from a range of industries. Most notably, he became the first-ever Singaporean BOSS ambassador for BOSS Menswear. He’s also been linked with other brands such as Toyota, Nestlé and TAG Heuer.

“Well, you’ve got an incredibly stressful job to say the least. In the sporting world, you are the face of Singapore, and now all these brands want a piece of you. How do you handle it?” I ask.

“You know, it’s awesome,” he says. “Like you said, yes sometimes it is stressful and sometimes it is very tiring, but at the end of the day, you just need to take a step back and think, how many people would kill to be in this spot.”

“But surely, it must be hard to embody so many different things to so many different brands. How do you retain your own brand personality?” I press on.

“Well, yes, on the surface level, everyone has different tag lines, slogans and agendas. But honestly, all the brands I partnered with, I have a passion for. All the brands I signed with have some bearing and effect on my life in some way,” he explains.

The brands he works with, Schooling explains, all have products that are somehow integrated into his life. But even more important than that, he says, is to have the brands’ value systems line up with his. His recent partnership with TAG Heuer is an example of the relationship going beyond the surface level. According to reports on Men’s Folio, the first Swiss timepiece he ever owned was a TAG Heuer gifted to him by his parents. As such, it almost feels full circle that Schooling is now the face of the Aquaracer which is TAG Heuer’s aquatic sports timepiece.

Opening up on his partnership with Hugo Boss, he says the brand is known for its quality, authenticity and precision, all of which resonates with him as an athlete and as an individual. “With my training, all of that applies. Even with me as a person, all of that applies,” he says.

In fact, Hugo Boss was one of the first few brands to have chosen to work with Schooling. He was lauded as the brand’s first Singaporean BOSS ambassador and the team later released a series of short video clips starring Schooling, with a full video released at the re-opening of the BOSS store at The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands on 25 May 2018.

Created by global creative network iris Singapore, the film explored the theme of compensating on life’s little luxuries to end up at the top, and ultimately, to becoming a BOSS Man. The film taps on Schooling leaving home at a young age to train in the US and how he embarked on his journey to become a professional athlete, which eventually saw him win Singapore’s first-ever Olympic gold medal with his iconic butterfly stroke.

“Hugo Boss wants to be the best. In fact, every company that I partner with wants to be the best in their respective fields – and they are the best. And that is what is very important to me,” he says. Opening up on corporate sponsorships, he adds that while it is important to have them, it is more vital for him to become “a part of the family” and establish a relationship. That way, the quality of output is always much better.

“Obviously, the clients have a job to do, and I am obligated to do the job with them. But they don’t make me feel like I’m obligated or that I have to do it. They are very understanding and very flexible with their time. They know that swimming comes first.”

Smooth sailing?

“But it can’t always be all smooth sailing always,” I push back. “What are some of the things brands need to know when working with you?”

“Well, in some instances, [a partnership with me] is the first time the clients have worked with an athlete, and I have a very tight schedule and so they might need to work around different timings,” he says. Moreover, streamlining tasks and working on maximum efficiency is incredibly important, given his rigorous training.

“Of course, sometimes, production companies want more time to guarantee quality, and that’s understandable. But that’s where I have amazing people like Rhonda [his PR partner from Full Circle] to help streamline those obligations and make sure we can do things in half the time,” he says. “At the end of the day, it is all about communication.”

Going back to his childhood, Schooling makes it clear that growing up his parents instilled several values that stick with him today – with or without the attention of the world.

I was taught never to be a diva or be high maintenance, and that I was just a normal kid going through the motions.

“So I always need to try to better myself. And that’s how I approach my daily life. That’s how I am as a person.”

But coming home a star was no doubt an extraordinary feeling, he shares. Taking us back to the moment when he first came back home after snatching the Olympic medal, he describes the moment as “pretty sweet” recalling specifically a McDonald’s promo in his honour.

“There were a bunch of things flying around during that time. But that just meant everyone is supporting you and it was a cool feeling. It makes me feel like I am home, and this is home for me. To come back to that welcoming and celebration was the icing on the cake and the cherry on top.”

The feature was first published in the September 2018 issue of Marketing magazine.