Digital engagement platforms empower human brands by enabling them to directly interact with various actors. Human brands, especially athlete brands, are about to outperform traditional brands on digital platforms. Drawing on literature from human branding, integrative branding, and performativity theory, this study identifies actors and analyzes their performances based on a case study of a professional athlete brand. We apply a multi-method approach using netnography and interviews to gain a deeper understanding of brand meaning co-creation. We contribute to existing literature by introducing the concept of integrative branding to the management of human brands. Additionally, we reveal three novel performance categories for the co-creation of human brands on digital engagement platforms. Our findings extend the literature by delivering in-depth insights into the brand meaning co-creation of athlete brands as a specific type of human brands. This study marks a starting point for further research on human brands.
Within the last few years, professional athletes have set new benchmarks in terms of brand marketing. Cristiano Ronaldo, a professional football player and one of the most popular human brands worldwide, reached more followers on Instagram in 2021 than all Premier League clubs combined and became the first human brand to amass over 500 million followers across all his social media profiles (ESPN, 2021, Marland, 2021). Although human brands have emerged as a relevant topic in brand management (Levesque & Pons, 2020), research in this area is still in its nascent stage. While the branding literature has addressed brand building and brand management of celebrities (Centeno and Wang, 2016, Johns and English, 2016, Kowalczyk and Pounders, 2016, Moulard et al., 2015), our study focuses on athletes as a specific type of human brands (Osorio et al., 2020). We chose this research context deliberately because by now athlete brands have outperformed traditional brands on digital platforms with regard to followership. Moreover, human brands are backed by a real person, which distinguishes the research subject of this study from traditional corporate brands in terms of branding dynamics and co-creation of brand meaning on multiple levels.
The development of digital engagement platforms (e.g., social media) empowers athletes by enabling them to interact directly with various actors, such as fans, sponsors, media, and clubs. With the advent of social media, athletes have begun to build, develop, maintain, and expand their brands (Appel et al., 2020, Liu and Suh, 2017). Athletes use their social media profiles, especially on Instagram and Facebook, to communicate publicly and freely accessible as well as to interact directly with their followers on a global basis (Casaló et al., 2020, Geurin-Eagleman and Burch, 2016, Hudders et al., 2021). The top 10 players in FIFA World Cup 2022 accumulate more than 1.3 billion followers with an average follower growth rate of 32.4 % from August 2021 until July 2022 (Nielsen, 2022).
4.1. Brand meaning co-creation performances
With regard to previous literature studying performances in brand management research, we identified the four brand meaning co-creation performances introduced by Iglesias et al. (2020) on the digital engagement platforms of the studied human brand (communicating, internalizing, contesting, and elucidating). However, in contrast to corporate brands, we identified additional brand meaning co-creation performances that seem to be unique to the specific research subjects of human brands and digital engagement platforms. These new performances (i.e., cooperating, reinforcing, individual loving, and individual hating) were initiated by various actors within the brand network. Across these eight types of performances, we recognized three generalizable categories that vary regarding the level of its brand-meaning co-creation that is given by the specific context of both theories of brand co-creation (e.g., multi-actor perspective such as co-branding processes) and human brands (e.g., interweaving of the athlete as an individual person and its brand). To be more precise, we differentiated between (1) networkrelated performances (i.e., cooperating) that emphasize the collaboration of actors regarding the co-creation of brand meaning; (2) human brand-related performances (i.e., reinforcing, communicating, internalizing, contesting, and elucidating) that describe activities that are considered to directly affect the athlete brand; and (3) person-related performances (i.e., individual loving, and individual hating) that mainly target the individual person behind the human brand. A visual summary of the identified categories is shown in Fig. 2.