The marketing strategy behind Naomi Osaka’s global success: Lessons from MA’s Game Changer 2022

A successful partnership with a star athlete can be marketing gold dust for brands. Stu Duguid, Business Manager for Japanese tennis superstar Naomi Osaka, explains how to cultivate them.

Over the course of their seven year partnership, Stu Duguid and Naomi Osaka struck partnerships with brands such as Nike, Mastercard, and Louis Vuitton, making Osaka one of the world's highest paid female athletes. They’ve recently launched an independent management company called Evolve with the goal of reinventing the traditional management approach.

The three stages of success

Stu Duguid hails from Scotland and holds a masters in sports and entertainment law. Formerly a solicitor, he’s a self-proclaimed “terrible lawyer” who decided to change careers and become an in-house counsel for a sports agency.

Stu got his foot in the door after being approached by Scottish tennis stalwart Judy Murray (mother of Andy) to run a charity tennis event for six months. He first saw Naomi at the Australian Open at a time when she was currently ranked #100 in the world.

Coming across as a phenomenal athlete, Stu decided to approach Naomi with the vision of marketing her as a worldwide sports legend. Fast forward seven years and Naomi has since been ranked No. 1 by the Women's Tennis Association and is the first Asian player to hold the top ranking in singles.

When they began working together Stu crafted a marketing strategy to propel Naomi’s global success, which he broke down into three distinct stages.

Stage one was all about establishing Naomi’s global brand. Naomi was already a commercial success in America due to her tournament wins and association with the social movement Black Lives Matter. But to maximise her reach outside America, Stu aligned Naomi with Japanese brands that had a strong global presence. Japan has a vibrant sports marketing industry, so their approach revolved around “getting our foot in the door and using their global marketing to accelerate her stardom,” Stu says.

In stage two, Stu needed to create a global lens for Naomi to maximise her visibility. So he cultivated business partnerships with popular brands that had a large cultural impact, such as Mastercard and Nike. This was a catalyst for positioning Naomi as a household name.

Establishing friendly partnerships for Naomi with other global sport stars such as LeBron James and Kevin Durant formed the third stage of Stu’s approach. “In the US, to be competitive in your sport is not enough anymore. You have to be good, or the best, and stand for something in order to be able to transact business at the top level,” he explains.

The evolution of brand partnerships

As Stu started working with Naomi he noticed that the world of sports sponsorship was changing. Stu began approaching Naomi’s marketing from a new angle and scaling back on traditional endorsement deals, unless they were on a large scale.

Stu’s new approach was to ensure Naomi’s brand partnerships were built on equality due to her strong personal values and associations. Naomi didn’t want to represent a brand that didn’t align with her ethos and this was the model they chose to pursue.

On their new model, Stu comments, “It's not so much about receiving traffic, incoming or outgoing, it's more about relationships and knowing where we want to be. It’s important for Naomi to have a connection with whoever's running, or is the founder, of the company she partners with.”

Fans were also beginning to demand more authenticity from brands and athletes, and there is a stronger emphasis on diversity and culture within sports. Athletes could no longer be linked to every sponsorship opportunity or social movement - it needed to happen of its own accord. Stu comments, “We've let things happen organically and naturally. I think we don't want to make the mistake of being drawn into everything because then we can only give so much back.”

To ensure Naomi’s brand came across as authentic, Stu also ensured she had creative freedom around how she portrayed herself and the brands she chose to represent.

Many athletes were beginning to stand for social causes and movements, and Naomi had previously been at the forefront of the George Floyd protests, aligning with victims of police brutality, while also being a champion for mental health.

“We're very particular about how she's going to be portrayed, and whether people are going to make stuff that is on brand for her,” Stu says.

It’s one reason why Stu and Naomi branched out and co-founded Evolve, an athlete representation agency with the intention of breaking down the barriers that still exist in sports and broader culture.

Evolve allows Naomi and Stu to invest in athlete-owned businesses and philanthropy within sports partnerships. This move made Naomi the first elite sportswomen to have primary control of her brand and business.

Australian tennis player Nick Kyrgios is the first client to be represented by Evolve, with the agency now overseeing his brand partnerships, investments, and charitable endeavours.