Bringing it home: How brands are thinking differently about sports sponsorship

Wimbledon and a World Cup – what more could you want from a summer? The Jules Rimet trophy would have been nice of course but I don’t think one can complain and (even as a Welshman) watching the country come together is a hugely inspiring testament to the efforts of Gareth Southgate and his encouraging team of youngsters – he should still be knighted really.

It got me thinking about the power of sport in general and in my conversations with FMCG and retail leaders the various impacts the sporting events have had on their businesses has naturally come up over the past few weeks. It’s increasingly apparent as well that sports and brands are at a peak of interaction, which made me think about the ways these two have evolved in their relationship together.

Sports sponsorship is a world in flux. The World Cup and FIFA, hit by allegations of bribery, corruption and mismanagement, has seen falling sponsorship revenue for the first time in years. Some of the largest and most prominent consumer-facing companies in the world seem ever warier of committing to multi-year hundred-million-pound deals with sporting organisations which are on the verge of losing the public’s trust, if they haven’t already. The fundamental assumption underlying sponsorship – that the brand of the sport, team, player or event is as powerful, if not more so than the brand of the sponsor, is increasingly coming under threat.

But, sports still offer an almost unmatched stage to communicate with consumers. The World Cup is the most watched event across the globe, narrowly beating out The Olympics to take the gold. Billions of people have tuned in this year to watch the world’s premier footballing nations duke it out over the group and knockout stages – FIFA’s revenue from TV rights has in fact grown by $500m since 2014. Last year’s Wimbledon broke its own viewership records and was available in over 200 territories.

It is, in short, an unmissable opportunity. So the question raised for brands, big and small, is how to make the most of the stage that sports offer, and where can the value in the market be found in an era of disruption and change?

First, companies have realised that you don’t need to sponsor a tournament to get some of the glow that sports can let off. Apple and Beats by Dre have excelled at this approach, handing out free headphones to players who then get photographed wearing the latest AirPods or Bluetooth Beats. It’s brand advocacy through the back door, relying on the quality of the products and the instant recognisability of the brand to get around strict FIFA rules governing when and where logos can be shown.

Guerrilla marketing is by now a relatively established idea. Successful (and not so successful) examples are everywhere and the advantages are self-evident. Take a campaign like Volvo’s 2015 Superbowl interception, for instance.

Instead of paying tens of millions of dollars to buy a 30 second slot, Volvo challenged consumers to tweet nominations for who should receive a free car from Volvo whenever a competitor’s ad was broadcast using the hashtag #VolvoContest. They zigged when others zagged, and ultimately, they won. Over the four hours of the game, 50,000 tweets with the programme hashtag were sent and it was the only car brand to trend nationally and globally. It’s calculated that the campaign generated nearly 200 million earned media impressions through the coverage that followed.

Both campaigns have avoided the economic costs of actually paying for a sponsorship and the reputational costs of being associated with sporting brands like the NFL and FIFA.

Second, new kinds of sponsorship relationships are taking on growing importance as social media and the emergence of new channels reduces the barriers between brand and consumer. Advocacy and ambassadorial roles avoid the cost and contractual rigidity of classic sponsorship arrangements while still leveraging the strong emotional connections between player and fan. Vitamin Well’s relationship with Zlatan Ibrahimović, for instance, had no small part to play in its emergence as an international brand. Its Zlatan@Work campaign, in which the footballer interviewed job candidates for Vitamin Well roles in front of hidden cameras has accrued millions of views on YouTube and coverage across Europe.

Finally, small may in fact be beautiful. SMEs are leading the way in demonstrating how highly targeted sponsorships can be used effectively. Take Vanarama, a van leasing company based in the UK. It currently sponsors England’s fifth tier of club football, the National League. It’s not the most prestigious sponsorship on the market, but that’s the point – it’s highly targeted, with significant alignment between Vanarama’s core demographics and National League attendees. Ultimately, it played a pivotal role in driving UK-wide brand awareness for the company.

Another example of this can be seen at the World Cup, where Marks & Spencer’s suit sponsorship of the English team has produced consistent positive coverage and social media buzz. It’s a smart low-risk high-upside sponsorship arrangement. The business has been agile and targeted in using Gareth Southgate’s (by now) well-known predilection for waistcoats to drive clothing sales at its stores and online. The company announced a new ‘National Waistcoat Day’ in honour of the English manager and saw a 35% waistcoat sales rise last week. Setting aside the waistcoat mania, M&S has generated consistent returns on the sponsorship over the long term by being targeted and strategically savvy.

These are just three examples of how the market is changing – big questions still remain about the future of sports sponsorship, and you’d need a book, not a weekly column, to discuss them all in the detail they deserve. But, two things are very clear. First, that we are seeing and will continue to see brands innovate to meet the challenges of the market head-on. And second, that the old rules of marketing still apply – knowing your audience, aligning your brand and positioning your campaign with insight and strategy will continue to be the keys to unlocking value.

So later today, whether you’re watching England bringing home third place or the Wimbledon finals, keep an eye out for innovative brand activity. Let me know who you think is doing the most interesting work! | @TheMBSGroup | The MBS Group