The New Rules of Engagement for Brands Playing in Sport

The sports industry is arguably one of the most competitive sectors for any brand to step into, with 70% of all sponsorship being driven by sports marketing (IEG, 2015). So as part of last week’s The Clearing by Floodlight, PrettyGreen’s Planning team have studied award-winning sports campaigns and examined wider trends in the industry to find out what make campaigns cut-through and what the new rules of engagement are for brands playing in sport.



Rule 1. Think beyond the brand


Over the past decade we’ve seen a range of new brands getting into sport, which isn’t surprising when you consider sportswear alone was almost a £6bn market in the UK in 2014, according to a report from Key Note. However, what some brands have excelled at is thinking beyond the boundaries of their product or service. In order to do this, it’s critical that internally there is an aligned and defined brand essence- the emotional heart of a brand that sets it apart from its competitors.


Next it’s important for the brand to define a credible role for itself before even thinking about sports activation or sponsorship; it’s very easy for brands to spend money in sports, it’s much harder to get the fans on side and be memorable. At PrettyGreen we talk a lot about today’s brands needing to be ‘servants’ to consumers. From Apple to Airbnb, Facebook to Fitbit, the most appreciated brands of our time have moved away from distraction and disruption, to delivering an ongoing use. Whether it is creating actual services, gathering communities or developing smart apps, serving consumers is proving to be a deeper, longer term, and more meaningful way to engage.


An award-winning example of this was O2’s Wear the Rose campaign for the Rugby World Cup, where they rallied the support of the country and positioned O2 as the champion supporter, whilst giving fans access to exclusive experiences through O2 Priority. To ‘think beyond the brand’ you need to ask yourself what can you credibly bring to the table, and what role can your brand play for fans?



Rule 2. Think beyond the sport


Nearly all sports sponsorships or associations will start with a natural affinity test: do we share similar values and have target audiences that complement each other? Assuming this test is passed and you’ve identified there’s a meaningful reason to engage in sport, it’s time to think what you’re getting out of this.


It’s important to ensure that the sport doesn’t takeover, and there’s a meaningful connection back to your core product or service.


The most memorable sports marketing associations put the brand at the heart of the activation. Brands like Doritos have run hugely successful campaigns around the Super Bowl, putting the product at the heart of the campaign while it’s also quite literally at the hearts (and mouths) of consumers as they’re watching the big game. Consumer goods giant P&G also created a deceptively simple but effective connection during their Olympic sponsorship during London 2012, with their ‘Proud sponsor of mums’ campaign.



Rule 3. Plan for the unexpected


This rule is becoming increasingly pertinent as 95% of sports viewing is ‘live’ according to a Q4 2015 report from Nielsen, so arguably sports marketing needs to be more real-time than any other sector. The best brands in sport plan for every contingency: whether that’s setting up a reactive social media ‘war room’, ambush marketing, or trolling another brand’s activation.


But more often than not a lot of this seemingly reactive behaviour has been planned months in advance. A best-in-class activation was the #VolvoContest during the Superbowl last year, when the car company launched what they humbly called the ‘Greatest Interception Ever’- encouraging consumers to tweet to win a brand new Volvo, but only when one of their competitor’s ads was airing during the commercial breaks.


There’s no secret to planning for the unexpected in sport; simply identify the opportunities and scenarios early, plan for every eventuality, and resource the brand with the right team to react in real time.




Rule 4. Stop saying you’re a ‘challenger’ brand


Too many brands and briefs say they want to be disruptive, especially in a competitive sector like sport, and aren’t prepared to really follow through on this ambition. The best challengers in sport go beyond just a tactical stunt; just look at Channel 4’s Superhumans campaign, which started in 2012 and continued the Paralympic legacy into Rio 2016 and beyond.




Earlier this year PrettyGreen worked with Virgin Media on their Twenty’s Plenty campaign for the new sponsorship of Southampton FC, which in partnership with the Football Supporters’ Federation sought to disrupt football’s pricing structure. Tickets for away fans to Southampton FC are subsidised and capped to £20 by Virgin Media in a ground breaking partnership that puts fans at the heart of the game.


So if you genuinely want to challenge, consider what your brand can affect or improve for consumers. What impact or legacy can you leave?



Rule 5. Find creativity in new places


The last rule is the easiest to say and the hardest to do. However, it’s also where the world’s biggest sponsorships and athlete endorsements won’t necessarily help, as they often come with a list of restrictions that can limit creativity. So finding new ways to approach creativity is where brands can start to level the playing field.


The emergence of new technology like Oculus Rift, 360 video, and accessible live-streaming is already heralding new experiences and giving fans access like never before, and will undoubtedly continue to drive the creative agenda in sport. Another huge creative opportunity in sport is in the real-world, whether that’s inside a stadium, guerrilla marketing near a key event, or helping fans out in a ticket queue.


Finally, data isn’t something you’d perhaps naturally associate with creativity, but EA Sports’ campaign to promote NFL video game Madden 15 is probably one of the most creative and ambitious examples you’ll see of real-time data processing in a sports campaign. Proving that creativity really can come from anywhere, even lots of zeros and ones.