Sponsoring a successful sportsperson or team should be a no-brainer for brands. Provided they pick one that appeals to their key demographic, they can benefit from their success, use them as a spokesperson, boost their brand and generally engage more deeply with potential and actual customers.
However, if this is true why are many of the biggest companies in the world conspicuous by their absence from sports sponsorship? I may have missed it, but I don’t see the logos of Google, Apple or Facebook on footballer’s shirts, F1 cars or advertising hoardings in athletics stadiums. They simply don’t see it as a good use of their marketing budgets it seems.
Looking deeper, this is part of a retrenchment over the past few years, with commercial sponsors replaced by trade suppliers in many sports. In Formula One, the biggest sponsor of Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes is, err, Mercedes, while Red Bull is a hybrid owner/sponsor. In cycling a large number of teams are sponsored by bike manufacturers and equipment suppliers and in athletics the likes of Nike and Adidas have a huge profile. In football seven of the 20 Premiership teams were sponsored by online bookmakers over the 2015/6 season, and a further two (including champions Leicester) by their owner’s companies.
So, why are consumer brands less visible when it comes to sports sponsorship – and what can clubs, teams and sportspeople do about it? I think it boils down to four factors:
1. The threat of scandal
There’s always been a chance that your brand’s chosen ambassador will go off the rails and get you publicity for the wrong reasons. But in an age of constant scrutiny the slightest indiscretion is now plastered over the front pages before your brand has the chance to react – look at Tiger Woods as a good example. As testing technology improves, more and more drugs cheats are being caught, even if, as in the case of Lance Armstrong, it is years after their offences actually took place. And that’s before you start on the impact of corruption within governing bodies on public and business perceptions of a sport. Many brands simply don’t want to take the risk of involving themselves in a crisis down the line.
2. Value for money
Sports sponsorship obviously covers a huge range of budgets and opportunities, but generally is becoming more expensive. Global competitions, such as the Premiership and F1 have a worldwide reach, meaning that only the largest brands have the budgets to spend on sponsorship. And to get any value from your sponsorship you need to make sure people know about it, using other marketing activities to make sure that your target audience feels involved and included, and that you maximise the impact through advertising, corporate hospitality and other add-ons.
We’re coming up to Euro 2016 and the Rio Olympics, meaning sports fans will see a procession of sponsor logos over the next couple of months. By the end of it all, will people really remember who sponsored what? Was it Nike or Adidas that provided the match balls for Euro 2016, or had pride of place on the stadium hoardings? I’m sure, if asked, many fans would claim to have seen adverts for brands that weren’t even there, such is the level of advertising saturation we are subjected to thanks to wall-to-wall TV and internet coverage. Demonstrating this, over half of the brands that consumers associated with Euro 2016 in a poll were not even sponsors of the tournament.
4. Other opportunities
Put simply, brands have a growing number of places where they can spend their marketing budgets. From online advertising to supporting good causes, they are all opportunities to boost a brand and engage with audiences. In many cases these channels weren’t there 10 years ago – and equally some sports have been hit by what you can and can’t advertise. One of the reasons for the growth of F1 for example was the enormous sponsorship from tobacco companies – they had nowhere else they could advertise in most countries, so could focus their budgets on one sport. F1 is in many ways still coping with the hangover, with high costs and a cultural desire to outspend rivals – but not the budgets to support it.
Digital channels in particular make it much easier to measure the results of marketing in terms of click throughs, visits and sales, whereas measuring the impact of sports sponsorship can be more difficult.
So, is sports sponsorship doomed? Not completely, not while we are still able to be moved by amazing feats of sporting prowess on the field or track. However, brands need to be more careful on what they spend their money on, and activate sponsorship more cleverly if they are to stand out from the crowd. And teams, players and governing bodies need to focus on getting their own houses in order, removing cheats and corruption and remember that the reason that brands sponsor them is to reach the fans – put them first and you’ll build loyalty that will deliver return on marketing investment, whatever sport you are in.
In a previous blog I wondered whether the rise of technology would mean the end of interesting, creative ads, to be replaced by a combination of content-based marketing and basic, fast, algorithmic ads powered by our online behaviour.
I still believe that the ability for us to zone out ads on digital media (whether TV or the internet) means that brands are going to have to try harder to engage our attention on these channels. One area I didn’t talk about was print advertising in newspapers and magazines. After all most commentators have been saying for a while that the internet has pretty much killed off physical publications, with old media facing falling circulations and rising costs. But recently listening to Sir Martin Sorrell, the boss of advertising giant WPP, has made me think again. As a man who spends millions of client money on online and offline ads, he obviously knows what he is talking about, and he believes that while digital advertising may be getting the eyeballs, traditional media is getting the engagement.
He points out that having tens of thousands of Facebook Likes, mentions on Twitter or prominent online campaigns is meaningless if it is merely transitory and consumers simply skip onto the next big thing, without lingering over your message. Additionally, it is quite possible for online ad campaigns to be subject to clever frauds where views are artificially inflated to justify increased spend.
In contrast, offline readers spend more time reading a newspaper or magazine, including viewing the adverts, driving a deeper engagement that means both PR and advertising messages are more likely to be remembered. Obviously it still means the story or advert has to be memorable, interesting and targeted, but if it meets those criteria, it could do more for your brand than ten times as many online ads or mentions.
The other advantage of print is that, battered by digital, advertising prices have come down considerably over the past few years. This makes print more cost-effective than it was previously, adding another reason to invest in the channel.
The disadvantage of print is it is that much more difficult to measure who has seen your article or advert and how it has moved engagement forward. Clearly every reader does not read a paper cover to cover, including the ads, but there’s no set way of working out its impact. It is no coincidence that WPP has recently invested heavily in measurement technology as this will be key to really demonstrating engagement – both on and offline. In the past print measurement, particularly for PR, was incredibly vague. For many years the standard way of demonstrating PR ‘value’ for a particular piece of coverage was to take the equivalent cost of the same size advert and multiply it by three as editorial was deemed much more believable by readers. Thankfully those days have gone, but it does leave a gap. By contrast you can measure everything online – but sheer numbers don’t tell you everything, particularly about engagement.
What is needed is a new approach that can link the two – but in a way that isn’t intrusive, respects user privacy, and doesn’t involve in extra work for the publication, brand or reader. Google Glass would have met some of these needs, but certainly didn’t tick the privacy box. So, the search goes on – but until then, marketers should bear in mind that eyeballs don’t equal engagement and choose their media channels accordingly.
Probably because it is a difficult discipline to predict, we marketers love the idea of systems that are proven to deliver results. Whether it is putting the call to action in a certain font, including a free pen with a mailing or emailing at a specific time of the day, anything that can help convince consumers is considered fair game.
So it is no surprise that marketers, and particularly advertisers, have long looked at psychology to help predict what will work and what won’t. I’ve previously talked about Mark Earls and the theory that, basically, we all want to belong to the herd, an ingrained, unthinking, attitude that makes us enormously susceptible to peer pressure.
Much of herd theory is related to the work of Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist who was awarded a Nobel Prize in 2002. His work (including the seminal Thinking, Fast and Slow), shows that the human mind is comprised of two systems. The first (system one) is intuitive, making decisions automatically, while system two rationalises the ideas of system one and sometimes overrules it. Essentially, what this means is that we think far less about decisions than we believe we do, and are much less rational than people expect. As Kahneman put it, “We are to thinking as cats are to swimming. We can do it if we have to, but we don’t particularly like it.”
Theories such as these are a godsend to marketers. If you can convince system one to like/buy something then chances are it’ll slip past the lazy watchdog that is system two without anyone noticing. Potentially scary if you are a consumer (or a citizen during an election campaign) but perfect for ad agencies.
Hence, as a recent story in The Economist points out, the phenomenal success of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk Gorilla advert, which delivered an ROI three times the industry average. In reality the advert had nothing to do with chocolate at all, but led with emotion (rather than information) and brand (rather than product benefits). Ad men love Kahneman’s theories because:
(a) They get the chance to do fun, extravagant ads that could win prizes rather than list the benefits of cough syrup
(b) Traditional ways of measuring ad impact don’t work with system one-led ads. So there won’t be an annoying (uncreative) market researcher telling you your ad doesn’t resonate with the audience.
As the current crop of Christmas adverts shows, reason and rationality have very much gone out the window, with a focus on brand, emotion and slowed-down songs sung by female pop stars. But I don’t think all is lost for the system two adverts – if they are clever, informative and delivered with humour they can appeal to our rational selves, and by being the opposite of the mainstream can stand out by being different. There’s always a trade-off – if all things were equal, most of us wouldn’t choose to fly Ryanair, but system two looks at the price difference on tickets and forces us onboard. So, before they get carried away, marketers and ad men shouldn’t throw system two out with the bathwater (or should that be gorilla?).
As everyone by now has been reminded by their children/mother, there’s less than a month to Christmas, cueing mass panic and a rush to Amazon.
Rather than starting shopping I thought I’d look at the marketing behind Christmas and how it has evolved over the past centuries. From the Christian Church to John Lewis brands have attempted with varying degrees of success to link to a midwinter celebration. Here’s a top four of marketing successes:
1 The Church
Before people start getting upset about the hijacking of the Baby Jesus’ birthday by commercial interests it is worth going back to pagan times. Before the Christian Christmas began there was a major celebration of the midwinter solstice, around the end of December. There’s no record of when Christ was actually born in the Bible, so essentially the church merged the existing pagan festival with Christ’s birth from around the fourth century as part of a move to increase converts and popularity.
2 The Victorians
For popularising other traditions (such as present giving around the day itself, rather than at New Year, and Christmas trees) we have to thank Queen Victoria and her consort Prince Albert, helped by the pen of Charles Dickens. The stereotypical Christmas scene of snow, robins and greenery comes directly from Victorian times, despite the current lack of ‘seasonal’ weather on the day itself. What better way to spread colonial strength than by giving the world an excuse to celebrate?
3 Coca Cola
There’s a widespread belief that Father Christmas’ red and white costume comes directly from Coca Cola’s 1930s ad campaigns. This may not be completely true – his forerunner St Nicholas dressed in red and white bishop’s vestments – but it is certainly something that the soft drinks giant cannily exploits to this day.
4 John Lewis
Over the last twenty years the competition to own the Christmas experience has led to more and more lavish advertising campaigns. Thanks to a heavy dose of hype these ads now attract press coverage on their own, with commentators discussing their relative merits, and now monitoring the social media buzz. Undoubted winner of the past few festive seasons has been John Lewis, which has knocked Marks & Spencer off its perch as the must see Christmas advert. This year it has spent a reported £7m on its animated Hare and Bear campaign, which generated over 14,500 tweets in its first few hours of release.
So, why is it important? Firstly, Christmas has come to dominate the retail landscape, with many chains doing the majority of their business in the months around 25 December. Secondly, spending is still cautious (despite what official figures say about the UK moving out of recession), so competition for every pound spent is fierce. If you can tap into the Christmas spirit not only will you generate seasonal goodwill, but you will also bring in revenue from customers who will remain loyal over the whole year.
This means that while it is easy to sneer at the over-excitement about TV ad campaigns, they are only the successors to previous attempts by brands to ‘own’ Christmas and therefore win over their audiences – whether to sell soft drinks, Victorian values or even Christianity itself. As the investment shows Christmas is far too important to be left to Father Christmas. Myself, I’ll stick to Scrooge………