Matching Brands to Sports: How to Win and Who Is Winning
What: Engagement with an increasingly diverse audience is critical for brands.
Why it matters: Winning off or on the field, be it team or brand, comes down to doing the homework. The chemistry, the timing, and the ethos have to align.
While there is still a great deal of hand-wringing over the future of media consumption, especially around sports in a younger and more ethnically diverse landscape, the fact remains that effective engagement and correct partnering, no matter what the medium or the device, is still key.
A look back at 2018 shows that the most eyeballs—88 of the top 100 shows—were live and, other than the Academy Awards, were all sporting events in English. In Spanish, the numbers were very much the same. The question now continues to be on the brand side: how, and with whom do you align to get the return on investment that you are looking for? The result remains very fluid.
“I believe the best consumer engagement campaigns are far beyond heart-tugging or inspirational messages on TV and social media,” said Jay Sharman (@_JaySharman), veteran sports media expert. “The gold standard initiatives literally bring together the community where they can heighten their connectivity around a common passion – on site.”
So what are some of those platforms—and also the brands—that have found the niche in the very crowded landscape? Some of the answers might surprise you.
Minor League Baseball
Long thought to be a hyper-local, almost mom-and-pop offering to brands, MILB (@MiLB) has consolidated its offerings into a national effort and has created some very unique branding and engagement platforms that have made the unified property both cost-effective and impactful.
The best example of a new and impressive offering is Copa de la Diversion. In three years, CMO David Wright and his savvy marketing team have created a blueprint for engaging the U.S. Latino population with a season-long Latino-specific tournament, Copa de la Diversion. This year 72 MiLB teams have created Latino alter-ego brands–logos, uniforms, traditions–and are competing for bragging rights for a league-wide sub-brand. The authenticity of this campaign is what sets it apart. It’s a true collaboration with each community to sensibly reflect the Latino passion for baseball and it’s transforming MiLB’s business.
When driver Carl Edwards took home a NASCAR race in the spring at Atlanta Motor Speedway, the brand used a fertilizer on the hood of his car. When they got to September, the brand message had switched to a winterizer.
Many thought that Major League Soccer’s (@MLS) startup successes in the Pacific Northwest with the Seattle Sounders (@SoundersFC) and Portland Timbers (@TimbersFC) could not be topped, but Arthur Blank’s Atlanta United (@ATLUTD) re-created the startup launch and have been a massive win not just for the thousands of fans who support the club, but for brands who have gotten in on the engagement side.
“Atlanta United’s creativity connecting authentically with the community has been a series of smart, marketing moves and tactics,” Sharman added. “Pregame traditions like “the Spike” can many times feel contrived, but at almost every step of the way – from naming the team to picking the right partners and then showing them how to seamlessly integrate with the club supporters has been nothing but impressive and successful.”
Whether it was Wisconsin-based American Family Insurance (@amfam) signing on as the club’s kit sponsor, or New York-based luxury men’s wear line Knot Standard (@KnotStandard) coming aboard as the club’s men’s wear partner, companies have gone to Atlanta United with the expectation that a business partnership will resonate well beyond the field, and will match their quality messaging with a quality brand experience.
The Changing Measurement Landscape
“The days of just slapping a logo on a sponsorship and picking up some tickets at the game or the race are long gone,” added Chris Lencheski, a veteran sports marketer who has created some of the most effective brand activation platforms in sports ranging from Formula One (@F1) and NASCAR (@NASCAR) to Major League Baseball (@MLB) and the NHL (@NHL). “Now, you as a brand make your selections after taking analytics and living and breathing the DNA of the property, team or league over time to see how you can marry your objectives with theirs. It has to be both emotional and executional to work.”
Some of those examples of brands that have won on both sides, according to Lencheski (who now also teaches sports marketing at Columbia University), are deals that he has done with brands like Scotts for NASCAR, a partnership which also spread to MLB in recent years. When driver Carl Edwards took home a NASCAR race at Atlanta Motor Speedway, the brand used a fertilizer on the hood of his car. When they got to September, the brand message had switched to a winterizer. “It's smart," Lencheski added. "It's the first day of spring and you're supposed to fertilize. They ran that car at the first, second and third stages of spring. Then you adapt to make sure it works. That's what we’re talking about— making sure our market is right. That does not happen if you are not in the room and listening to what makes the most sense for the brand. It is not 'one size fits all.'”
That changing message also works well for Scotts (@ScottsLawnCare) with its relatively new partnership with MLB. Grass, yes, is a natural fit (no pun intended) for America’s national pastime. But making sure that the products are matched to the season is key in integration and messaging, so that the result of sales and affinity is tied to the right offering at the right time of year. You sell more seed in the spring, so match the message to the season. Timing, something often missed in brand partnerships, is also key to success.
While the hard sell timing is very important today, so are emotional ties. The ability for brands to deliver an emotive message tied to sports immediately around a social campaign is also key. A recent case in point, two actually, are Budweiser (@budweiserusa) and Nike (@Nike).
Budweiser made not one but two very emotive statements in recent weeks, one tied to a yearlong campaign around the Centennial of Jackie Robinson's birth (@JRFoundation) and the other one to the retirement of Miami Heat star Dwyane Wade. The Robinson example is a detailed multimedia campaign with unique consumer packaging, while the Wade tribute was a fairly long but very emotional video with the future Hall of Famer being surprised by several people whom he had impacted in his life well beyond the court. That play was huge on the social connection because of its length and did not have the direct consumer sales impact that a Robinson display in a store would have, but they both pulled at the heartstrings to get fans of varied ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds to align with Bud over their other beer of choice.
“We sometimes forget that certain groups, especially millennials, are driven by emotion first in their brand choices,” added Harrie Bakst, the cofounder of WCPG, a firm that partners, athletes, celebrities and brands with philanthropic campaigns. “The emotional connection may not always be a direct call to buy, like we see with Bud and the Jackie Robinson campaign, but its subtle messaging as we see with Dwyane Wade, can have even more of a long tail effect, and that return, if crafted correctly, can be even more valuable as a whisper to the consumer than a direct shout.”
Now the packaging of the message, whether bold or subtle, has to be correct. Even in the Wade campaign, which had zero in terms of people drinking beer, the “Bud” branding was front and center. In the print campaign around Jackie Robinson, you can’t miss the Budweiser logo, so little is left to chance. “The return on those two campaigns really bookend how you can deliver correctly to consumers,” Bakst added. “One is direct and overt, one is a subtle build, but both emote positive feelings and messages which resonate with the consumer for the short and long term.”
Then there is Nike. The apparel brand has had its peaks and valleys in recent years, and as the landscape continues to be more and more competitive, the swoosh keeps adjusting. Case in point in recent weeks was the riding of the wave that brought Tiger Woods (@TigerWoods) back to the top of the golf world at The Masters. Nike’s response in the social space after Woods' win at Augusta was emotional, multigenerational, and left nothing to chance, especially as it was delivered on a massive social platform before it ever made it to the traditional platforms of print and broadcast. That sent a message to the athletic world that the brand supports the success of the human condition as seen through the eyes of one of the world’s most legendary athletes.
— Nike (@Nike) April 14, 2019
“Nike has never been a brand looking at the short term,” Lencheski added. “Their investments, especially in elite athletes, teams, and leagues, go through as deep an evaluation and brand match process as anything in the consumer space. The result is an ethos that works for all, and that message, and to return, has a huge payoff when something like Tiger Woods' comeback reaches the point it did a few weeks ago.”
Finding the White Space
The other careful match that brands have to take into consideration is that window of opportunity that others are not realizing. For companies big on disruption and ones that can move quickly, the "lightning in a bottle," or the speaking to a niche audience, can have a pretty unique return. Case in point is Red Bull (@redbull), and its plays away from the mainstream into the worlds of extreme sports.
“Red Bull has found that the white space of entertainment aligns with their brand, and they create content and experiences that connect their community in unique and memorable ways,” Sharman said. “By treating themselves like a sponsor that supports this approach they’ve built tremendous brand equity in themselves.”
While mass consumer sales is the goal, the unconventional approach, being short form video, event activation and athlete supported as the first step, not the traditional second, has given Red Bull a leg up in the competitive beverage category that few saw coming years ago, and has made it the brand to measure against and challenge among that thrill seeking demo.
Winning With Latinos
As 2019 unfolds, this brand activation space in sports continues to be one of the more elusive ones. We have written on the brand success stories seen by companies that have gone all in on consumer ROI targeted to the demo, from Tecate (@tecate) to Wells Fargo (@WellsFargo). However the overall engagement in “Latino” or “Hispanic” is still evolving.
“Whether you are the NBA or MLB, the brand identification in this space still means many things to many people; a product that plays well with Liga MX and a Mexican fan base may not work with the Brooklyn Nets who are trying to tie in with a Dominican supporter and so on,” Elisa Padilla, the senior VP of marketing & community relations for the Miami Marlins (@Marlins) told us last fall. “We see it here in Miami as well. You really have to know the segments of your fan base and understand what they are asking and what you can deliver for them. It is certainly not a one size fits all opportunity, especially in terms of expectations or return. It is a challenge, but an interesting one that is a great opportunity for those who can manage and figure out the mix.”
In the end the marrying of brands to the sports space is still a slippery slope for some, especially given the fluidity of budgets, and frankly, the various and sundry ways that content, live or packaged, can be delivered today to audiences big or small.
“You have to have a clear understanding of the market segment you want to reach, and be well versed in all forms of message delivery, today more than ever,” Lencheski added. “The message for a brand needs to be sincere and compelling, and those brands also have to understand that the famous John Wannamaker line: ‘I know half my advertising works, trouble is I never know what half’ may be adapted but can still be true today. Your social strategy has to align with broadcast and if you have a cause that too has to speak to the audience correctly, otherwise you lose the message effectiveness. Picking the right team, league or personality is a challenge, but it all comes down to homework. Just like in school, if you put in the work, you get the grades.”
Winning off or on the field, be it team or brand, comes down to doing the homework. The chemistry, the timing, and the ethos have to align. Without putting the work in, the results may be costly.
Cover Image: Carl Edwards (credit: Maverick Helicopters, Tom Donoghue)