By David Farrow, MD sports and entertainment, Dialogue141.
When Andrew Flintoff took the ninth wicket of the Australian innings in the second Ashes test at Lord’s in July, he dropped to one knee and with arms outstretched held the pose as he faced the spectators in the Mound and Tavern Stands. The image was seen on television stations, websites and in newspapers from Surrey to Sydney.
Clearly visible on Flintoff’s breast as his teammates ran to embrace him was the logo of mobile phone network operator Vodafone – the England cricket team’s sponsor. The future of this partnership, currently in its 12th year, is a good indicator of the direction in which sports marketing is heading.
The shot of Flintoff celebrating undoubtedly served Vodafone well in terms of exposure, with the giant Lancastrian acting as a heroic, passionate brand ambassador.
It also benefitted from the coverage given to a great sporting story, as Flintoff’s man-of-the-match performance propelled England to their first victory over the Aussies at Lord’s since 1934 and gave them the lead in the Ashes series.
However, Vodafone’s current £16m, four-year deal with England ends after the team’s winter tour of South Africa at the start of 2010. So why has it taken the decision not to renew the contract?
Sponsorship has grown enormously over the past five years. But the worldwide economic downturn means it cannot continue at this pace.
Vodafone is not the only one: RBS will end its sponsorship of the Williams Formula One team at the end of 2010; Honda elected not to continue running its Formula One team in this season’s championship; and US insurer AIG will not extend its sponsorship of Manchester United beyond May next year.
Anything that gets a brand good media coverage should not struggle to find a sponsor, but now could be a good time for brands to take a different approach.
Recession is a time for intelligent thinking, when brands need to consider more creative ways of using their money. One way of doing this is using sponsorship to show that your brand cares. Savvy brands have recognised this, and have already begun to adapt.
Vodafone is a good example. It will remain involved with English cricket after agreeing with the English Cricket Board to fund a grass roots project. The company's branding, however, will be removed from the England shirt.
Brands should look to link their sponsorship and CSR programmes together. Instead of brashly slapping your brand’s name on a team’s shirt, why not link your sponsorship activity with a community initiative? Instead of your brand’s name on the shirt, could it be the charity or NGO you support?
Aston Villa have given over sponsorship space on their shirt, worth an estimated £2m a season to the club, to children’s hospice Acorns. This is surely just the start: the first brand-funded deal will not be far behind.
Brands should also use the recession to make some interesting deals. You might find yourself in a position where you can use incentives. By the time the Ashes comes around again, will the amount contributed by England’s team sponsor vary according to how many runs the team scores, or how many wickets are taken?
In future, brands could also negotiate with sports to create their own series. Crazy? No. Arsenal’s pre-season Emirates Cup tournament is a two-day mini-series. The Indian Premier League has blown the world of cricket apart, and is essentially the creation of an agency. It is the best way to reach the hearts and minds of the world’s biggest growth market.
And what of the market? Consumers will not cut back on their personal entertainment budgets – cricket and football matches, gigs and other high-profile sporting events will continue to be well attended. Spectator numbers at this year’s Wimbledon tennis championship, for example, broke records.
Therefore sponsorship of venues will become more important. This covers naming rights, but also means priority tickets could be made available to consumers of that brand. The O2 Arena in London, for example, gives priority tickets to O2 customers.
Return on investment has always been measured, but this has traditionally been done post-activity. Smart brands will be more rigorous right from the start of the sponsorship process – there will be more research on projected return and justification on spend.
So, build a brighter future for your brand in sports sponsorship: think about how you can link sponsorship opportunities with CSR initiatives; explore the different options you have open to you – don’t just push a stack of cash across the table; consider sponsoring a venue; and could you create your own series?
Brands that do these things can expect a long innings. Brands that don’t might find they are caught behind.
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