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HUGO BOSS remains unwavered in Schooling support. Will brands ditch or defend the swimmer?

HUGO BOSS remains unwavered in Schooling support. Will brands ditch or defend the swimmer?

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Singapore’s sporting golden child and Olympic swimmer Joseph Schooling, has apologised for taking cannabis while overseas. Schooling confessed in a statement that he “gave in to a moment of weakness” after going through a very tough period of his life.

According to a statement by the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF), the 27-year-old swimmer admitted to the consumption of cannabis while away on short-term disruption from full-time national service (NS) to train and participate in the Southeast Asian Games. Moving forward, Schooling will be placed on a supervised urine test regime for six months. MINDEF also said that given his abuse of the privileges, Schooling will no longer be eligible for leave or disruption to train or compete while in NS.

SportSG on the other hand said it intends to thoroughly review the circumstances behind these cases, and determine the appropriate steps to be taken thereafter, according to an article on Channel NewsAsia. It added that all TeamSG athletes are expected to uphold the highest standards of conduct as representatives of Singapore on the sporting world stage. “Unlawful or unsportsmanlike conduct will not be condoned," it added.

Schooling has become a household name in Singapore, first bringing home the gold medal in 2016. Since then many brands have placed their support behind the athlete. Some of the brands which have worked with Schooling include Hugo Boss, Nestle, Yakult and One Championship. Meanwhile, DBS confirmed to MARKETING-INTERACTIVE that its partnership with Schooling ended last year when he enlisted for national service. Borneo Motors confirmed the ending of the contract with Schooling in June 2022. 

While, understandably, there are discussions around whether brands should distance themselves from the sportsman, an official statement has not yet been given to MARKETING-INTERACTIVE from many of the brands mentioned above. HUGO BOSS Southeast Asia, managing director Steven Lam, however, said while Schooling has made a mistake, what is more important is that he has taken ownership of it.  

“Over the years, he has always been a positive influence in and out of the pool. He has inspired many kids to believe in themselves, to work hard and to chase their dreams. We have taught future generations that it’s ok to make mistakes, to own up, but you will have to take responsibility and more importantly, fix it,” said Lam.

He added, “It will be a long road ahead for Joseph but we believe he will now show us how he will make good his promise to rebuild the trust with the people who believe in him. Our partnership and support for Joseph remains strong and unwavered.”

Industry professionals MARKETING-INTERACTIVE spoke to remain firm but empathetic on the matter. Speaking under the condition of anonymity, one sports brand professional within the marketing and communications department, said typically an athlete and a brand are bound by a sports contract which will need to be honoured.

“Such contracts generally contain actions/misdemeanours to which the athlete does accept consequences to. But legal documentation aside, the voice, value and trust a brand must uphold is a precarious balance and often such acts put the relationship in question,” she shared. At the end of the day, brands sponsor athletes for the shared values they have in common and whether or not the use of drugs is in Singapore or overseas, it sets a bad precedent for youngsters a sports company wants to connect and engage with, she explained.

She added that from a PR standpoint, there is likely to be a “no comment stance” as not only is this an athlete contract violation, but also Singapore’s own stance towards drug use means that a brand can’t take this lightly. Most likely, any upcoming campaigns with him will be put on hold.

While a brand’s own course of action is dependent on the contracts signed, these issues can take the relationship either way - some may choose to break their relationship and others will decide to stick by their athletes.

“A brand is the harbinger of that relationship between fans and athletes so in this instance they will have to take a careful view of their actions. They can’t be seen to be condoning drug use at the same time one-time misdemeanour should be forgivable,” she shared, adding:

One thing for sure is that those who are not sponsoring him will all be saying ‘Thankfully he is not one of ours’.

She added that another crucial aspect brands will consider would be visibility. If Schooling is no longer allowed to compete on a regional level garner eyeballs, in likelihood brands will put out. 

While it is likely that no new sponsors would sign on, and ongoing sponsorship activations might freeze, Lars Voedisch, MD of PRecious Communications said that ultimately, brands have to access if his behaviour has tarnished his reputation beyond a point of return. Or does his apology deserve forgiveness?

“Right now he is the fallen hero but at the same time he becomes more human - and by coming clean on his own terms might have saved him. The questions sponsors have to ask themselves is whether the value of the brand Joseph Schooling has not only decreased but potentially became toxic for their target audiences,” he said. At the end of the day, what matters most is what the key target audiences of the sponsors think.

“Whatever the outcome of this situation is - Joseph Schooling will always be Singapore Golden Boy, the first Olympic Gold Medalist," Voedisch added.

Sticking by the athlete

However, the incident also allows room for brands to come across as humane and compassionate – which are all attributes that purposeful brands embody. “Brands who believed in Schooling and supported him during his good days, can be part of his recovery from this incident and help by continuing to support him,” shared Sharon Koh, managing director, Digital Studio by APRW.

She added that the whole of Singapore celebrated Schooling when he won the Olympic gold, and now that he is down, it is time for Singapore to show even stronger support for him. She said:

He is after all, a Singapore son whom everyone loved when he made an astonishing accomplishment. It would be sad to see fair weathered supporters.

On rebuilding Schooling’s image, Koh shared that admitting his mistake took courage and most of us in the public aren’t privy to the tough period he was going through.

“Perhaps this is a story that Schooling can share later on in life to inspire others on how he turned his life around after making a mistake. That would be a strong story to encourage others who may have made mistakes in their lives too,” said Koh.

Edwin Yeo, GM of SPRG also said that without knowing the full details of the incident, he would advise clients to should stick by the athlete. “Considering that the facts at the moment were that he confessed and has shown remorse, it wouldn't be the right to drop him due to a moment of weakness. If indeed the facts of the matter were as reported, I think Schooling did the right thing and needs to stay strong and accept the consequences while figuring out the next steps of his sporting career,” Yeo shared.

Related articles:
DBS splashes campaign for new digital service with Joseph Schooling across print
Gillette dives into the meaning of being one's best with Joseph Schooling
McDonald’s re-launches Nasi Lemak Burger with Joseph Schooling ad

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