On Aug. 22, a Monday, 12-time Olympic medalist Ryan Lochte lost all his active endorsement deals. Speedo, Ralph Lauren, Laser Hair Removal and Airweave (a mattress-topper), in that order, all jumped ship after the swimmer’s story about being robbed at gunpoint in Rio crumbled.
By Thursday, three days later, he had a new endorsement deal already.
The first company to take a chance on post-scandal Lochte was Pine Bros., maker of an old-fashioned “softish” throat relief lozenge. Since then, Lochte has added a second deal (with Robocopp, maker of an alarm whistle) and will be on the next season of ABC’s “Dancing With The Stars.”
Why did Pine Bros. hop aboard the Lochte train when it had just derailed?
“The extent to which he was punished seemed excessive,” says CEO Rider McDowell. “The corporate culture has evolved to the extent that, one wrong word or stupid move, and you’re out. And this underestimates the forgiving nature of the American public… and the nature of Pine Bros. So we reached out to him.” There was another reason the embattled athlete appealed to McDowell: Lochte had done charity work to benefit cancer, and McDowell’s oldest son battled cancer (he has since recovered).
Pine Bros. is hardly a hip young brand. The company was founded by two brothers from Germany in 1870, and has sold and changed hands many times in the 145 years since. McDowell, a retired jack-of-many-trades entrepreneur based in Pebble Beach, Calif., bought the company 12 years ago and restored the original lozenge formula.
Pine Bros. has taken a chance on controversial or unconventional celebrity spokespeople before.
In 2013, it produced a television ad with Martha Stewart. McDowell now reveals that the ad was supposed to be with Liza Minnelli, but she pulled out. Stewart, a lover of the brand, happily stepped in. The commercial is straightforward, but with a wink.
In 2014, Pine Bros. signed the rapper Waka Flocka Flame; E News said his Pine Bros. ad was “everything” and Gawker declared it was “the undisputed highlight of this year’s miserable American Music Awards.”
When Pine Bros. inks these deals, it sees instant results. McDowell tells Yahoo Finance it has seen a 20% sales bump in the week since it announced the Lochte signing, and has signed a new deal with Target for distribution.
Waka Flocka brought the brand a 25% sales bump, but Martha Stewart was the biggest score of all, and longest lasting: sales rose 33% after her ad.
But it isn’t about to sign on every public figure involved in a mini-scandal or controversy.
“There’s plenty of people that stub their toe,” says McDowell. “But if you go after every one of them for PR that’s kind of a desperate approach.”
If you ask McDowell, Lochte is different. “He’s a good person, he’s a nice friendly guy. We’re extending a message to corporate America: give people a second chance. It’s one thing if you’re a mass murderer, right, but let’s take this in context. I think everybody has had a drunken moment.”