To Marketers, Kristi Yamaguchi Isn't As Good As Gold

Kristi Yamaguchi is red-hot. She's lithe, pretty, and telegenic. Her performance in women's figure skating, the glamour event of the 1992 Winter Olympics, won her the gold medal--the first for an American since Dorothy Hamill wowed the judges in 1976. So savvy consumer-products companies must be lining up to pay the 20-year-old Northern Californian big bucks to endorse their wares, right?

Not exactly. "Kristi has no offers yet," says her agent, Kevin Albrecht of International Management Group. He has drawn up a list of goods that he thinks are right for her: "Soft drinks, automotives, and because of her attractiveness, beauty products."

TOO ETHNIC? So far, though, that's all just paperwork. Coke and Pepsi have had preliminary talks with Albrecht, but neither has made an offer. And other companies are not interested at all. Nutrasweet, which used Hamill as a spokeswoman for five years, hired Yamaguchi for a month-long skating tour in 1990 but won't be using her as a spokeswoman.

Is celebrity marketing passe? Hardly. Rather, companies may be shying away from Yamaguchi because of her ethnic heritage: She was born in the U.S., as were her folks, but her surname and looks are Japanese. Says Jay Coleman, president of Entertainment Marketing & Communications International, which recently signed Michael Jackson to his third Pepsi campaign: "The environment to 'max out' on her earning potential is not enhanced by the present mood of the country toward Japan."

Albrecht and the companies he has talked to say Yamaguchi's ethnic background hasn't come up. But it's worth noting that the companies she already has deals with--Kellogg, Ray Ban, and Evian bottled water--don't plan to make much of a fuss over her gold medal. Kellogg will do the most: It's picturing the skater on a Special K cereal box. Ray Ban, a division of Bausch & Lomb, has a two-year contract with Yamaguchi but is using Olympic sprinter Jackie Joyner-Kersee and swimmer Matt Biondi, among others, in its TV ads.

NOT FEATURED. Evian, the Paris-based mineral-water company, won't make many demands on Yamaguchi, either. She'll appear at some high schools and in advertisements with other athletes. Who will star in Evian's print ads? "Not Kristi," says Evian marketing director Edward J. Slade. The print campaign will feature Biondi and Wendy Williams, a member of the Olympic diving team.

Pepsi, likewise, is more excited about Ray Le Blanc, star goalie for the U.S. hockey team, which didn't win a medal. The company will help throw a welcome-home party in Indianapolis for Le Blanc, who once worked in a Pepsi plant.

Yamaguchi will appear in local TV ads for Campbell Soup Co. And she and her mom, Carole, are prominently featured in a Kraft General Foods Inc. recipe book. But in the marketing Olympics, she's no threat to Michael Jordan. It's curious: Both Hamill and Peggy Fleming became promotional mainstays after they skated their way to Olympic gold. Yamaguchi, for some reason, may never even get the chance.

      Company        Product
      KELLOGG        Special K cereal
      EVIAN          Bottled water
      BAUSCH & LOMB  Ray Bans
      CAMPBELL SOUP  Various soups
      KRAFT          Various foods
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