With the national media buzzing about sports-related concussions last year, Unequal Technologies figured it would be easy to generate publicity about its impact-absorbing sports equipment. But after pitching media outlets for several frustrating months, executives could hardly grab a headline.
Then, in November, the manager of controversial Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick phoned Unequal Chief Executive Rob Vito. Mr. Vick, who had been wearing retrofitted Unequal football pads all season, wanted to be Unequal’s official spokesman.
Mr. Vito—who had been involved in fitting the player with the specially tailored equipment—was intrigued, but his advisory board was skeptical, sparking a heated boardroom discussion. “One of our consultants said we would be committing ‘business suicide’ if we hired Michael Vick,” Mr. Vito recalled. “We’re a small company. We can’t afford that kind of backlash, where a Dick’s Sporting Goods or a Modell’s says, ‘Hey, because you have Michael Vick, we’re not going to carry you in our stores.’ ”
Even with Mr. Vick’s brand tarnished from the highly publicized dog-fighting scandal— which landed him in jail for a year and a half and prompted companies, including Nike and Coca-Cola, to drop him—Mr. Vito sensed an opportunity. If the sporting world could be made aware that Unequal’s football pads had helped Mr. Vick’s spectacular comeback from a rib injury, it could help Unequal attract orders from NFL teams and football moms alike. Ultimately, he was able to convince his company to sign Mr. Vick.
The story of Unequal’s association with Mr. Vick highlights how working with potentially polarizing celebrities can provide a big marketing platform for companies. Tapping Mr. Vick as a spokesman boosted the profile of the relatively unknown Unequal—and furthered Mr. Vick in his ongoing quest to rebuild his brand, which had earned about $7 million a year from endorsements before the scandal.
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