Welcome to age of “Angry Phelps.” Gone is the dopey grin and childlike glee in victory. Phelps is now an stern destroyer of records, a fuming champion with a chip on his sculpted shoulder.
The Angry Phelps brand was introduced in March with the Under Armour “Rule Yourself” spot. It presents a solitary, focused and brooding Phelps, darkly obsessed with training. Angry Phelps was also on display after the swimmer’s gold medal win in the 200-meter butterfly race this week. Clearly more comfortable with being a brand now, Phelps put on a show, flapping his hands at the audience, celebrating himself in complete self-awareness. Compare his post-win performance in Rio to his subdued one eight years earlier in the same event in Beijing (both below).
And then Angry Phelps took off worldwide with the #PhelpsFace meme.
.@MichaelPhelps is not impressed with Chad le Clos's antics.
— NBC Olympics (@NBCOlympics) August 9, 2016
when starbucks is out of coconut milk pic.twitter.com/6IMdhcLcIo
— Dana Schwartz (@DanaSchwartzzz) August 9, 2016
When you accidentally buy the Kidz Bop version of a song on iTunes. pic.twitter.com/eJpDphHaeU
— Mark Ennis (@MarkEnnis) August 9, 2016
when you’re the new crying jordan but for anger and annoyance pic.twitter.com/t3UZqM7Ctq
— (((Jesse Spector))) (@jessespector) August 9, 2016
Athlete memes are nothing new. There’s the “Crying Jordan.” Or “Yao Ming Face.” Less well known but no less funny, the “Smokin’ Jay Cutler” meme. But none of those memes so perfectly served the personal brand of the athlete as well as Phelps’s Rio creation.
Angry Phelps is six years in the making for Phelps and Under Armour. In 2010, the brand introduced this serious version of Phelps in a “Protect This House, I Will” spot. Two years before that, Under Armour featured Michael Phelps talking about his training, even smiling. A PowerBar ad that same year sticks with the theme of Phelps training hard, but it’s a positive message about what that training brings. A Head & Shoulders ad finishes with the Olympian smiling in slo-mo.
Proof that Angry Phelps may be more of a brand position than a representation of the real Phelps can be seen in a behind the scenes video posted by Under Armour. Here, Phelps is shown his grim “Rule Yourself” video. His reaction is one of bemusement; the swimmer even tears up.
The new Angry Phelps is also proving to be the Sly Phelps. Those watching the Rio Games have seen the swimmer’s custom swim caps with the Michael Phelps “MP” logo on the front. That is the swimmer’s own personal brand logo, found on numerous products in a distribution deal with swimwear brand Aqua Sphere. Aqua Sphere is not an official IOC sponsor. Under Armour—also not an official sponsor—has used the MP logo on its special edition sneakers created for an indeterminate international athletic event.
Interestingly, the MP sneakers include an imprint of his 12-week-old son Boomer’s footprint. And while sneak peeks of Phelps as a doting dad show the world his softer side, they won’t detract from his Angry Phelps brand image.
In fact, the value of the free media exposure from the MP logo has been put in the $5 million range. (Though some of that value may have been lost when the Aqua Sphere MP cap ripped as Phelps tried to put it on.) And now he’s retiring after winning five gold and one silver at the Rio Olympic Games.
— Under Armour (@UnderArmour) August 14, 2016
Under Armour, meanwhile, is turning its ambush marketing campaign into an art form. In addition to the non-Olympics Phelps shoes, the brand has been going to town on social media with non-Olympics Olympic messages. It’s Twitter account is a cavalcade of sly winks at athletes it supports from Team USA to The Netherlands.
— Under Armour (@UnderArmour) August 11, 2016
— Under Armour (@UnderArmour) August 11, 2016
— Under Armour (@UnderArmour) August 9, 2016
— Under Armour (@UnderArmour) August 8, 2016
And it’s no different on Instagram.
Interestingly enough, a little-watched 2015 video from Aqua Sphere also shows the act that is Angry Phelps. In the video, Phelps is laughing and showing the world his goofy grin.
By the way, Angry Phelps isn’t the only angry person having to do with Michael Phelps at the Rio Games. The IOC is upset that Phelps and other Team USA swimmers were caught exposing the Beats logo on their headphones. Beats is not an official Olympic sponsor. The athletes fixed the situation with American flag stickers over the logos.
But this is the second Olympics in a row now where Beats’ ambush marketing has been able to sneak past the IOC’s sponsorship filters. In London in 2012, Beats logos were everywhere onscreen without the company ever giving the IOC a dime.
But the IOC’s attempts to corral unofficial sponsors is proving nearly impossible in the age of social media.