PokerStars Shifts Marketing Focus, Deemphasizes Celebrity Endorsers

Marketing to online poker players and online gamblers is always a tricky proposition, with an example of a typical dilemma surfacing this week: Online-poker market leader PokerStars has announced a change in its marketing focus, and now plans to deemphasize and limit its use of celebrity and athlete endorsers.

This is a sizable reversal for Stars and its parent company, Canada’s Amaya Inc., which just a couple of years back embraced the celebrity-endorsement avenue.  Back then, Amaya claimed that athletes and other celebs offered better bang for the buck than continuing to sign poker players.

The thinking behind the 2015 expansion in celebrity marketing was that the celebs’ name recognition stretched far into the mainstream, whereas patched-up poker players appealed only to other poker players, and PokerStars, at least, had already achieved a certain level of market saturation in that respect.

But would athletes and other celebs provide enough bang for the buck?  The celebrity athletes signed by PokerStars to represent the brand haven’t been cheap; sich signings never are.  Stars did, however, have plenty of history in inking big names.  The site’s signing of legendary German tennis pro Boris Becker, and later another tennis superstar, Rafael Nadal, pre-dated the 2015 shift by years.  They weren’t the only ones; other prominent athletes to have represented PokerStars include Italian footballer Gianluigi Buffon, French rugby star Sébastien Chabal, Brazilian auto racer Gualter Salles, and cross-country skiiers Petter Northug (Norway) and Marcus Hellner (Sweden).

It wasn’t done quite to the extent of Team PokerStars Pro, which featured the poker players, but then again, it couldn’t be.  Mainstream celeb endorsements cost much more, on average.

And now, it’s all about to change… again.  From an e-mail Stars’ marketing division sent out to its affiliates:

“Starting April 1st 2017 we will be focusing on our ongoing Free Welcome Bonus Offer. In addition, our branding team has designed some wonderful creative and banners to help support your acquisition efforts and drive in some big numbers!

Therefore, as of midnight March 31st 2017, all Cristiano Ronaldo & Neymar Jr promotions materials (ie. banners, images, etc) will have to be replaced as the Cristiano Ronaldo & Neymar Jr banner creative will no longer be valid for you to use from that date.”

“No longer be valid” is very likely marketing-speak for “no longer under contract” as it refers to the pair of international football (“soccer” for us Yanks) stars.  Ronaldo and Neymar Jr., plus US pro-basketball player Dwyane Wade, were featured in Stars’ “Raise It Up” campaign last November and December, which now looks as was the trio’s last big promotional fling for the site.

Wade has already been removed from the Team PokerStars SportsStars page, and it appears that Ronaldo and Neymar Jr. will soon be excised as well.  That’ll likely leave only Dutch Olympic star (field hockey) Fatima Moreira de Melo… and frankly, Moreira de Melo’s endorsement was almost certainly a much less expensive buy than most of the other athletes listed here.

Without knowing some of the hard results behind such efforts as Stars’ “Raise It Up” campaign, it’s inpossible to say it was either success or failure.  However, the larger picture suggests that whatever new-player quantity the big sports stars helped draw to the site, it wasn’t quite enough to continue the deal.

It’s a tricky biz, particularly when your size and brand recognition works both for and against you.  That’s part of the marketing lesson learned here.

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