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Sports sponsorship: Is it time for b2b brands to get in the game?

  • by Matt Duxbury
  • 21st Jul 2017
    • B2B, Brand Growth, Branding, Strategy

Brand sponsorship of a sporting event, team or individual is an established strategy for companies looking to extend their reach. The sporting world holds obvious appeal – there’s the large, highly engaged and often global audience, plus a chance for brands to align themselves with elite sport’s language of achievement and high performance.

Current trends, however, suggest the conventional approach to sports sponsorship is no longer working for many brands. At the same time, there seems to be a growing interest in – and opportunities for – b2b companies entering the arena.

Same old, same old

Top marketers from some of the most visible brands in sport have questioned typical sponsorship models in the last year or two. In comments reported by Marketing Week last October, former Coca-Cola GB marketing director Bobby Brittain suggested the repetitive, predictable nature of major event sponsorship can even leave brands at a competitive disadvantage. “It must be the easiest job in the world to be the Pepsi marketing director,” he said, referring to Coca-Cola’s long-running relationship with the Olympic Games and FIFA World Cup.

The observation about sports sponsorship being “samey” was also made by Christopher Carroll, Under Armour’s European head of marketing, this time about individual sponsorship deals. With most product endorsements and other brand tie-ins commanded by a small group of ultra-elite stars (Cristiano Ronaldo, Tiger Woods pre-career implosion), Under Armour has pursued an alternative strategy by teaming up with lesser-known athletes that could be perceived as underdogs or future stars. It’s a savvy move to subvert the norm and position the brand as a dynamic challenger to industry giants like Adidas and Nike. “We’re only partnering with athletes whose stories mirror our own,” Carroll explained.

Making sure it makes sense

Sports branding experts view this kind of authentic link between brand and the event, team or individual they sponsor as the key to success. The relationship makes more sense to the average sports fan if the two parties can demonstrate shared values and/or expertise, while genuine synergy will open new avenues for collaboration on content and products. Increasingly, brands are looking for opportunities in sport that go far beyond the kind of “wallpaper” sponsorship deals that soon fade into the background or, worse, actively irritate fans.

“The heyday of sponsorship where you splash a logo and pay a fee is over, and that’s no bad thing. This is forcing sponsors to be creative, considered and insightful,” Leah Davis, head of marketing at Team GB, told Marketing Week.

From sponsorship to partnership

So a wide-scale shift from old-fashioned sponsorship to authentic, multi-faceted partnership is well underway. This development, together with the sporting world’s fascination with data and statistics, helps to explain the growing presence of b2b brands in sport.

SAP is one of the world’s biggest software companies, but few people outside the IT sector knew much about the German brand a few years ago. That all changed due to SAP’s wide-ranging and ambitious partnership with Manchester City, which began in 2015. The relationship is built on a single shared value – innovation – and the SAP advertising placed around the Premier League club’s Etihad Stadium is just the beginning of the firm’s brand reinforcement tactics.

In almost every sport, clubs now collect a huge volume of player and supporter data. Manchester City are using SAP’s number-crunching expertise to gain an advantage on the pitch and enhance the fan experience. The club hopes to uncover major new trends in player development using data tools provided by the tech giant, but changing the way supporters interact with the game is also on the agenda.

One product to emerge from the partnership is the City Pulse Wall, an interactive screen in the stadium grounds that offers in-depth data profiles for every player in Manchester City’s main squads. Milan Cerny, SAP’s technology and innovation lead, told the Drum that SAP can “take the stats from Opta [the official Premier League stats provider], mash them up, consolidate them and remodel the data to come up with insights that give fans more insight about the players and club in a way that’s entertaining and engaging”.

Racing ahead

Software and IT companies are not the only ones spearheading the new kind of sports partnership. DHL (a brand we work with here at Upp) have a relationship with Formula One dating back to 2004. This highly successful partnership is based around the services provided to F1 and its teams by the Bonn-based logistics provider (another German brand Рas England football fans know, the Germans always win).

With the F1 championship racing through 21 different countries every year, often with just seven days between each race, DHL has an ideal platform to demonstrate its expertise in planning and moving freight. Arjan Sissing, senior vice president of corporate brand marketing at DHL, recently told Forbes that the brand’s partnerships across motorsport (DHL is also active in competitions like MotoGP) have delivered “tremendous value” in everything from “brand reputation to employee engagement”.

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Other b2b brands looking to explore new partnerships in the sporting world should take plenty of encouragement from these examples. Although the commercial landscape of sport is complex and constantly changing, we can at least glean the core ingredients of a successful approach from the likes of SAP and DHL. Brands should start by finding an event or team with similar values, then consider whether this common ground is strong enough to sustain a long and productive relationship. Just like other consumers, the typical sports fan receives information in a variety of ways across multiple platforms, so it’s important to think about how the benefits of any partnership can be maximised for both parties.

When it comes to identifying the next big commercial opportunity for brands in sport, would-be sponsors are spoilt for choice. In football, the Chinese Super League is growing rapidly and a long-awaited boom in US ‘soccer’ is expected to occur in the next few years due to the number of young people playing the sport. In the UK, experts have noted a steady increase in the popularity of ‘extreme’ sports like skydiving and surfing, which is likely to attract business interest. The 2020 Olympics in Tokyo has already surpassed existing sponsorship records. For brands with the ability to develop genuine partnerships, one thing is for sure – there’s a lot to play for.