Sports sponsorship: brand new focus

Big companies that have traditionally backed the most popular sports – football, cricket and rugby – are now looking to ‘minority’ events as the world of sports sponsorship evolves. Vision reports

At the first modern Olympic Games, held in Athens in 1896, the results card carried an advertisement for a company that, since producing its first camera eight years earlier, was fast becoming a global brand. That company was Kodak and its relationship with the Olympic Games was to continue with only occasional breaks until it withdrew from its role as a global partner after the Beijing Games of 2008.

Nowadays, sponsorship is integrated at every level. [Brands] use the passion for sport to build a deeper connection to their customers, and their investment adds significant value to the events they support.

Andy Westlake, CEO, Fast Track

In 1928 another giant of the corporate world made its Olympic debut in Amsterdam. Coca-Cola made quite a splash in Holland and has been integral to the Games ever since, building a wide-ranging portfolio of sports sponsorships that range from the Fifa World Cup to the Nascar motor racing series.

Kodak and Coca-Cola were early adopters of sponsorship, recognising it as a potent weapon in their marketing armoury. Both brands realised that international events offer not only valuable exposure but association with the positive values of top-level sport. Marketers will tell you that sport is a universal language. It holds audiences spellbound, and sponsors work hard to ensure that some of the stardust rubs off on them.

Building trust

The lessons learned by Kodak have not been lost on successive generations of global brands. Many of the world’s most successful companies from every business sector have linked their brands to sports events, teams and athletes in a bid to build awareness and trust among local and national audiences.

Among the biggest spenders in the global sponsorship market is UAE airline Emirates, which this year has spent more than Dh1bn (US$250m) on deals around the world. Emirates, which is a partner of Fifa and the football World Cup, sponsors leading football clubs including Real Madrid, Arsenal of the English Premier League, big-spending Paris St Germain, SV Hamburg and AC Milan.

The brand is heavily involved in horse racing, tennis, golf, sailing and even Aussie Rules Football, and as its global route network has rolled out over the past two decades, its sponsorship portfolio has developed strategically to provide support. For Emirates as for many others, sponsorship has become a mainstream business tool. But, as with everything else in business, it continues to evolve, and today presents fresh challenges along with new opportunities for those corporations that invest in rights.

Patrick Nally, the British businessman regarded by many as the founding father of modern sports sponsorship, has watched the sector grow since he introduced Coca-Cola to Fifa in the 1970s. But Nally thinks that major sports events may have to rethink their sponsorship offers if they are to continue to take the lion’s share of sponsorship budgets. “Sports events may not remain the automatic choice. Brands plough millions of pounds into major events, clubs and individual athletes, but people are starting to wonder whether they are always getting real value for money,” says Nally.

Nally says he has detected a change of attitude among some corporates that are, after all, not short of alternative ways of spending their budgets. “There is a response to the changing attitudes of the public that could increasingly lead brands down a new path. Rather than being high-profile sponsors of major events, they are increasingly looking for a deeper involvement in areas such as grassroots sports development and sports-based social programmes that may be seen to show them in a more positive and dynamic light,” he says

Integrated marketing

Andy Westlake, CEO of the Fast Track agency, (part of Chime Sports Marketing, chaired by Lord Sebastian Coe) thinks it is more subtle than that. “The relationship between brands and events has changed markedly over the years,” he explains. “They used to view sponsorship in a very one-dimensional way; in effect, it was all about exposure,” he says. “Nowadays, the thinking is much more advanced, and sponsorship is integrated at every level. They use the passion for sport to build a deeper connection to their customers, and their investment adds significant value to the events they support.”

Westlake believes that London 2012 played a role in alerting the global brand community to sponsorship opportunities beyond the biggest events and leagues. In particular, he feels that the increased attention paid to women’s and paralympic sports at the Olympics, combined with the new opportunities for more targeted engagement created by social media, are making brands think about entering new territory.

“The Paralympics are a great example. Until the 2012 Games, many brands had been slow to recognise the depth of value that association with disability sport could offer,” he says. “Women’s sport is another area that has too often been off the agenda in markets such as the UK. But 74 per cent of the brands that took part in our post-Games survey now see women’s sport as a much more attractive proposition than before the summer.”

“Brands are becoming much more comfortable buying sports rights that don’t necessarily deliver huge amounts of automatic TV exposure. They are happy to develop the narrative around their involvement, and explore new opportunities for connectivity. They are driven by a trust agenda as much as pure visibility, and that has seen new levels of commitment and creativity,” he says. The relationship between brands and sport is complex and ever-changing, and sponsorship can never be an exact science. There is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all sponsorship campaign, simply because every brand pursues its individual commercial objectives.