OPINION: ‘Be bold and engage’

26 Mar 2020

Leading sports marketers have urged sponsor brands to use bold creative ideas and stay relevant with sports fans during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Steve Martin, Global Chief Executive of M&C Saatchi told SportBusiness that the shutdown of live events had put fear and anxiety into marketers and brands, but that lessons should be learnt from the financial crisis.

Martin said: “My belief is that you should never waste a crisis. Once you turn off sports and entertainment there is a void, but we have the opportunity to fill this void in a period of isolation, fear and uncertainty. While sport has been turned off both locally and globally, does that mean that people don’t care anymore? I believe it’s the opposite – everyone cares, the passion has not changed, and communities are coming together having splintered over recent years. In this context, despite social distancing, nothing’s actually changed for brands and marketers either – they are trying to connect with the same audiences, but using digital, online and community-based activations.”

Garry Dods, Founder & Managing Director of London-based agency WeAreFearless, agrees that the disappointment at the loss of live sport and access to favourite players and passion points can be alleviated by new ways of engaging with the fans, “arguably offering sponsors greater opportunity to generate goodwill and loyalty with fans than if life was normal. Relevance is everything, especially in times of trouble. Whilst the context has changed so dramatically, the key for brands is to understand and meet fans’ deeper values and motivations. These unconscious drivers of behaviour and decision-making rarely change even in the chaotic uncertainty we live in now. Brands need to feed these motivations in new bold and socially-driven ways. Yes, there’s a huge change, but focusing on the real human need and connecting purposefully with that will earn much greater attention and affinity. Take a bolder position to meet your objectives by collaborating and breaking the status quo by using your sponsorship rights in different ways to earn fan attention and loyalty. Think of alternative creative ways to sweat the maximum value you can from your contract.”

With live sport off limits, the innovative use of technology could be key to achieving these goals.

“There’s an amazing opportunity for 5G to come into play and there’s already an absolute shift in the power of ideas and creativity,” said Martin. “We are seeing that live online, with live gigs at home or on the fitness regimes of sports stars that have never seen before. There are opportunities for brands and sponsors to shift their focus using the amazing assets they get as part of their sponsorship. When we’re pushed into a corner, ideas and creativity act as the strong north star – and when you take away something people care about, the passion will be beyond turbo-charged when it comes back.”

Dods offers other examples of how sponsors can work with rights-holder in disruptive ways to create value for fans:

“Look at Peloton and The Nike Training Club offering extended free trials and additional at-home workouts on their apps. Look at Borussia Dortmund’s live stream ‘digital fan viewing party’, held after the postponement of their game against Schalke 04 incorporating their 12 official commercial partners in China and digital broadcaster PP Sports through adverts, cross-platform promotion, jersey auctions, and branded content. It’s time to be courageous and purposeful and think about new ways of using your brand, marketing and company capabilities to add real value. Look at Louis Vuitton’s parent company LVMH using its perfume factories to manufacture 12 tonnes of hand sanitiser to support France’s crisis…and think of alternative creative ways to sweat the maximum value you can from your contract.”

Whether brands rise to meet these challenges or cut back on activation spend because of the downward pressures on their businesses from the crisis will vary from sector to sector.

Dods cites industries that rely on people leaving their homes as most obviously at risk: airlines, other transportation, automotive, hotels, hospitality providers, employment services, fitness centres, electricity and film distributors.

Those industries that may choose to invest during the period include social media platforms, esports, streaming services, hygiene-related brands and food delivery.

“I suspect the answer lies in what influence the CMO holds in that organisation, their fearlessness and whether marketing is seen as demand creation or cost centre,” Dods said. “And frankly whether consumer insight and behaviour drives decision-making in that business. There is a bunch of evidence that suggests in times of trouble with reduced marketing spends from competitors, the opportunity to cut through is significantly enhanced. These times require bold leadership and informed risk taking. To do nothing and wait for life to return to normal risks losing your first-mover advantage and the opportunity to turn fan pain and disappointment into appreciation and loyalty.“

Steve Martin echoes this call to action: “My view is that brands have a great opportunity to show what they are made of. If I’m an Olympic Partner, for example, and the Olympics is postponed, I have an opportunity to keep the Olympic spirit going, using the talent and contractual access from the sponsorship to create really strong brand engagement and differentiate from competitors. There is also a job to do about education about the combating the spread of the virus – sponsors with amazing rights can use those platforms to educate the audience. Jürgen Klopp’s message to football fans [about the importance of the league shutdown] shows what just what one man can do.”