It takes about 0.425 seconds for an Alek Manoah fastball to travel the 60 feet, six inches from the pitcher’s mound to home plate. It’s fast, but Dove Men+Care and its PR agency Edelman Canada also moved with lightning quickness to seize on an unexpected marketing opportunity around the Toronto Blue Jays’ star pitcher.
Last week, the brand announced the creation of the “Sponsorship for Sportsmanship,” naming Manoah its first-ever recipient for standing up to a sports broadcaster who cruelly body-shamed his teammate, Alejandro Kirk. Manoah subsequently donated the accompanying $100,000 prize to KidsSport, a non-profit that provides underprivileged children with access to organized sports.
For more than two decades now, Dove has made unrealistic depictions of beauty and body size/shape one of the cornerstones of its marketing. The “Campaign for Real Beauty” has been an enormous success from both a business and brand perspective.
The “Sponsorship for Sportsmanship,” however, represents a rare foray into addressing men’s body image. Laura Douglas, Dove brand lead and growth manager at Unilever Canada, said that one of the core focuses of the Dove Men+Care brand has been on care, both for one’s-self and others, and Manoah’s actions were a perfect embodiment of that philosophy.
The sponsorship was quickly conceived and implemented by Dove Men+Care and Edelman after Matthew Ross, the host of Weekend Game Plan on Montreal radio station TSN 690, ridiculed Kirk following his run from first to home during a Sept. 13 Jays game.
The Blue Jays tweeted about the event, but sprinkled among the laudatory remarks praising Kirk’s dash was a scathing comment by Ross: “It’s cute and all,” he wrote. “But it’s also embarrassing for the sport. Giving guys like this prominence feeds negative [baseball] stereotypes.” (Ross has since deleted his Twitter account, although his remarks were, of course, screen-shotted for posterity.)
Listed by Baseball Reference at five-foot-eight and 245 lbs, it’s true that Kirk’s physique is not that of someone typically associated with a pro athlete—a recent article on Sportsnet.ca, which, like the Jays, is owned by Rogers Communications, described him as “short and thick”—but his everyman appearance, coupled with an undeniable zeal for the game and a recent All-Star nod, has also endeared him to both teammates and fans.
But while Ross has borne the brunt of the public’s anger for his inflammatory comments, which he has since admitted were “harsh” and “out of bounds,” he isn’t alone when it comes to perpetrating the age-old stereotype of baseball players being out of shape.
In 2015, for example, Men’s Health wrote an article headlined “Baseball is for Fatties, and Always Has Been” (somewhat disingenuously calling it a defence of “plus-sized athletes and fans of America’s pastime”), while other serious sports media outlets, such as Bleacher Report and U.S. Today, have also perpetrated the stereotype.
Manoah, though, quickly came to his teammate’s defence, with back-to-back tweets reading, “What’s actually embarrassing for the sport is people that go by the name of Matthew and have never played a day in the big leagues thinking they can control the narrative and stereotypes.
“Go ahead and tell that 8 year old kid who is 10lbs over weight that he should quit now,” he added. “Or just step aside from the keyboard and let KIRK inspire those kids to continue to chase their dreams and chase greatness.”
“His act of care really had a transformative impact, and that’s what we want to showcase,” said Douglas. “Not only did it impact his teammate, but we were also inspired by the fact that he included and considered and opened the door for the next generation of players who may have seen the conversation that was happening online.
“We’re listening to conversations that are meaningful to consumers, but we will only speak to them when we can credibly do so and it’s own-able to us as a brand,” she said. “Knowing this fit so well with what Dove Men+Care stands for, we knew we needed to act quickly.”
Dove Men+Care has no sponsorship agreement in place with either the Jays or Major League Baseball, but reached out to Manoah’s representatives at Toronto-based August Icon Marketing (AIM), resulting in a signed contract with the star pitcher within 24 hours of his tweets.
Nadia Ali, senior director of PR and marketing at AIM, said that Manoah was instantly receptive to the idea of working with Dove. “The overwhelmingly positive response to [his] support of his teammate presented a unique opportunity for Alek to take a position on body shaming, and to align with a brand that shares his values,” she said.
After reaching an agreement, the parties spent the next week spent putting together what would become the “Sponsorship for Sportsmanship.” It was a hectic week said Ali, “filled with countless emails, calls, and text messages.”
Dove Men+Care soft-launched the “Sponsorship for Sportsmanship” with a tweet on Sept. 23, and on Tuesday spent four-and-a-half hours shooting outside the Rogers Centre for a video spot that was edited and produced in time for that night’s Jays game.
“To have Manoah on set, and have that asset go live in less than 10 hours was an incredible accomplishment,” said Douglas. “That was the fastest we’ve ever shot content, especially with an all-star athlete. I’ve moved fast in my career, but I don’t think I’ve moved that fast.”
The accompanying spot features Manoah, wearing a shirt with the Dove Men+Care logo and a message on the back reading “Manoah has your back,” playing baseball with some kids in the shadow of the Rogers Centre. In the video, Manoah says that while it’s easy for pro players to get caught up in wins and losses, they are also human, and it’s important for youngster to learn the value of care early in life.
“A man who cares for his teammates on and off the field… is a man who represents the best in sport,” says the spot’s closing super.
Edelman’s chief creative officer Anthony Chelvanathan said that Dove parent Unilever has played a key role in the agency’s growing strategy of responding and creating at “the speed of culture.” “The way in which we ideate and bring life to an idea like ‘Sponsorship for Sportsmanship’ together in such a short amount of time is inspiring.”
One of the five kids featured in the spot, meanwhile, was the child of someone who had reacted to Manoah’s original tweet in support of Kirk. “To make their dream come true and have them featured in an asset was a really feel-good moment for us as a team,” said Douglas.
Dove had already proven adept at skillfully maneuvering its way into the cultural conversation—most recently when it changed the colour of its dove logo from gold to grey in solidarity with former CTV National News anchor Lisa LaFlamme, whose decision to let her hair go its natural grey was said to be a factor in her abrupt dismissal by Bell Media last month.
The key to participating and successfully pulling off involvement in these kinds of conversations is ensuring an “authentic fit” with the brand and its values, said Douglas.
The brand constantly evaluates these kinds of opportunities, but wading into a conversation like this also comes with a degree of risk. “We know we’re buckled into a rocket-ship and we’ve got to hold on until blast-off,” she said.
The goal, she said, is to have “Sportsmanship for Sponsorship” become an ongoing program. “I know we’ll continue to see athletes demonstrating care on or off the field, pitch, rink or whatever this may be. This felt very agile and reactive in nature, but I know that it’s something we’ll continue to support as a brand.”