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Ronaldo vs. Messi: Choose your brand! 


Matteo Rinaldi 

Football player’s popularity

In one of my latest trips to Brazil, I was working with several football teams. While there, I learned that many ex-football players have a common problem: they are not able to maximize their value using their ‘popular image’. Usually, a few years after their career was over, they found themselves almost back at their starting point.  

It’s not a secret that when football players become popular, many people approach them. Most of them want to take advantage of their popularity by suggesting different kinds of investments. Football players typically have absolutely no idea whether they will prove profitable. Most of the time, in fact, they have no idea how to run these side projects. What often happens is that they leave it completely to their agents.

Because football players do not have direct control of these activities, they risk failure and an incredible waste of money. 

In this era of digital transformation, becoming popular online has become extremely profitable (think about Chiara Ferragni, Tim Ferris, and many others). Every football player now has the chance to start a parallel business while still playing. This way, they can continue to build it and have more control over it, even after retiring from the game. 

Most football players are already extensively using social media, but how can they make it profitable in the long run? The answer is clear: they must go beyond being just a football player and become a brand. Or, even further, a lifestyle icon. 

Let’s take as an example two of the biggest brands in football today: Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. Two different backgrounds, two different personalities, and two different brands.  


Cristiano Ronaldo


Born on 5 February 1985 in the São Pedro parish of Funchal, the capital of the Portuguese island of Madeira. He later moved to the nearby parish of Santo António. He grew up in a humble family. Ronaldo is the fourth and youngest child, of Maria Dolores dos Santos Viveiros da Aveiro, a cook, and José Dinis Aveiro, a municipal gardener. 

In 1997, aged 12, he went on a three-day trial with Sporting CP. Thereafter, he moved from Madeira to Alcochete, near Lisbon, to join Sporting’s youth academy. It was here that he started his fantastic career as a professional football player. He won FIFA World Player of the Year and Champions League five times, being the all-time top scorer of this competition, followed by Lionel Messi. 

Cristiano Ronaldo likes to portray himself as the perfect athlete. He enjoys a rigorous diet, extremely intense training, and a multitude of treatments to improve his performance. Also, he makes sure to have plenty of sleep to fully recover. Ronaldo also has an entire staff of people that helps him to be always in perfect shape. 

Ronaldo is also incredibly focused on his looks and image. His smile is always shining, and his hairstyle is always perfect, even after 90 minutes on the pitch. It’s been rumored that he has a personal hairstylist who takes care of his hair before the game, even during half-time. 

His image, combined with the extraordinary performances of his teams, has rewarded him with a huge number of fans all over the world. He’s been able to leverage his influencing power to build his business empire. Cristiano Ronaldo, aka. CR7. He is not only a football superstar, he’s also an extremely successful entrepreneur and one of the most famous celebrities in the world. 

Lionel Messi

Messi was born on June 24, 1987, in Rosario, Argentina, and is the third of four children. His father Jorge was a steel factory manager and his mother Celia worked in a magnet manufacturing workshop. At the beginning of his career, he was diagnosed with a hormonal deficiency that slowed his growth. In fact, despite his incredible talent, he was smaller than most of his peers. 

At the age of 13, FC Barcelona offered him the opportunity to move to Spain and paid for his hormonal treatments. For this, Messi is very grateful to Barcelona; this is one of the main reasons why, for most of his career, he played there.  

Humble and grounded, he is very attached to his family. Every time he scores, he raises his arms to the sky and dedicates the goal to his grandmother Celia, who died when he was only 11 years old but was the most important person in his life. 

Messi is considered by many experts as one of the best football players in the history of the game, and he has become famous all over the world, just as his colleague Ronaldo has. 

Ronaldo vs. Messi

As a Harley-Davidson driver will never drive a Ducati, people who support and love Ronaldo will never be big fans of Messi, no matter which team they play on.  

Their brand personalities are so different. Indeed, supporting one of the two goes beyond the colors of their jersey. They are not just amazing football players, they are brands that communicate certain values and portray a specific lifestyle (like Ducati and Harley-Davidson). 

I’ve always been a huge supporter of SSC Napoli (my hometown) and at the same time a big Roberto Baggio fan. It was not only about how he played, but also about what he represented.  

He was extremely humble, very family-oriented, and always involved in socially responsible activities. His ‘pigtail’ was famous all around the world and I never stopped being his fan, even after he missed the penalty against Brazil in the final of the World Cup in 1994, or when he played for Juventus (which for a Neapolitan is even worse). 

So, what are the advantages of going beyond being a football player and becoming a brand? 


From football players to brands

  • Popularity: Using social media effectively can help to reach a consistent number of followers that will help the player to become more popular, access a bigger audience, and be rewarded for any brand they promote on their pages. Ronaldo, for instance, has more than 600 million followers on Instagram. (It’s nearly double the population of the US or half of China!)
  • Additional revenue: Becoming a brand helps to create additional revenue streams that can continue even after their playing career is over. In fact, it extends that career off the pitch. 
  • Fan engagement: Football players will be able to engage with their fans about issues other than their sports results and the color of the jersey they’re wearing. Stan Smith (Adidas), Jordan, R9 (Nike), CR7, and RF are just a few examples of names that become actual brands that now are part of our daily life. Some of them become even more popular after their playing career ends. 
  • Sponsorship: It will be easier for them to attract more sponsors from brands that are in line with the lifestyle they want to portray. From the company’s perspective, it becomes very important to choose brand ambassadors that align with their strategic positioning and target group. IKEA would never use Zlatan Ibrahimović as a testimonial, despite having a nationality connection (they’re both Swedish); the two brands have very different values. IKEA is very family-oriented, warm, inclusive, and altruistic. Ibrahimović is tougher, more competitive, and more focused on himself. Creating a partnership, in this case, would damage both images. 

An unsettable debate

Defining who the best player is between Ronaldo and Messi is impossible. Even top football experts are divided between those who prefer the Argentinian and those who prefer the Portuguese. On the other hand, in terms of marketing and self-branding, the decision is easier, as the strongest brand is clearly Cristiano Ronaldo.  


Ronaldo’s numbers on his social networks are quite impressive. They represent his (and his team’s) ability to communicate the values of his brand to fans worldwide.  

Cristiano Ronaldo has achieved yet another remarkable milestone, and this time it’s attributed to his extraordinary presence on social media. Following his recent recognition as Forbes’ highest-paid athlete, Ronaldo has now clinched the title of Instagram’s top earner for the third year.  

This prestigious ranking is curated by Hopper HQ, an Instagram scheduling tool, and relies on a combination of both internal and publicly available data that assesses the fees charged by Instagram users for their posts.  


The figures unveiled in this list are nothing short of astounding. Ronaldo commands a staggering $3.23 million for every Instagram post he shares. Right after, Lionel Messi, who takes the second spot, raking in an impressive $2.6 million per post.  

Players’ brands

Hate them or love them for what they stand for, but you can’t be indifferent towards them. This is common with any successful brand (like Apple, Coca-Cola, Diesel, Beckham, etc.).  

Alfred Adler, a student of Freud, mapped the key personality dimensions of brands (or human beings). Marketing teams often use this map to describe the positioning of their brands (in the car industry, for example, Aston Martin would go in Power, BMW close to Vitality, Mini Cooper near Enjoyment, Toyota at Consciousness, with Volvo in Security).  

By applying this method to some of the most important football players, we can see how different their brands are. 


Such self-branding work applied to football players will definitely help companies. By correctly assessing their positioning, they will be able to see with whom they should partner in a sponsorship deal. When done successfully, it will be worth millions of dollars and will create value for their customers.  

After all, popularity is a terrible thing to waste, and it will be if not monetized and extended. Companies are looking less for football players and more for lifestyle icons. This is because they can more easily become brands that positively align and enhance their brand.


For more insights, visit Human Centric Group.