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5 Ways To Improve Your Brand's Game With Sports, September 03, 2013

By Lesa Ukman

As global brands grow more competitive, innovation in a brand’s marketing will play a more central role in the financial health of many categories. Partnering with sports organizations–whether leagues, teams, events, or venues—offers a substantial and sustainable opportunity to out-innovate competitors by connecting audiences to the things they love in ways they never knew were possible.

But it’s not automatic. Successfully transforming sports assets into value-enhancing, consumer-focused innovations that build communities and unlock the human spirit requires a deep understanding of customers, increased agility, new analytics, and the ability to harvest ideas from a more global and diverse network. Here's your game plan.

1. Tap Into Emotion
In markets worldwide—where millions of people will, of their own volition, announce to the world their affection for brands—emotion matters. It animates screens, scales ideas, and drives behavior. Unlocking the emotion embedded in sports partnerships requires viewing audiences as people, not demographics, and replacing instinct and hunches with research-backed insights from multifunctional teams and consumer immersions.

These insights led Heineken, a UEFA Champions League sponsor, to create Star Player. The social gaming app lets fans simultaneously watch Champions League matches on television while playing in real time against their friends on a computer or smartphone, while publishing their results on Twitter and Facebook. The social gaming platform grew out of Heineken’s research that found 75 percent of its target audience—male fans of UEFA—were watching games at home while dual screening. Heineken Star Player is the highest performing marketing investment in the brand’s history, with two-thirds of its players becoming brand ambassadors. Until Star Player, no marketing investment had achieved brand ambassador levels in excess of 4 percent.

2. Create Great Content, Don’t Just Badge It
Awareness is not a proxy for success in sports—credit is. Brands do not get credit for being the biggest sponsor or the brand with the longest tenure, but rather for bringing something new and better to the fan experience. To get credit, create valued enhancements rather than just piggybacking on what exists. To build awareness of the enhancements, promote with a combination of paid, earned, owned, and shared media.

Coca-Cola, which used London 2012 to grow volume an average of 3 percent in markets worldwide while sales for the soft drink category overall were flat, created 120 pieces of Olympic content— including an anthem, a custom mobile app, live events, a documentary, and a nightly TV show. More than 4 million consumers uploaded their own videos to Coke’s Olympic Facebook page. Coke added more than 40,000 fans per day during the Olympics, and its integration of Olympic content and apps with SMS enabled it to build a database of users who opted in to receive offers in such key as markets such as China and India.

3. Make It Participatory
As the information Web has transformed into the participatory social Web, the stories that brands put out are dwarfed by those created about them. Sports give audiences a reason to care and share. And social and location-based technologies turbo-charge their ability to rip, mash, and redistribute content across networks.

Optimizing participation—crowdsourcing, voting, content creation, etc.— can create "customer evangelists" who voluntarily promote brands and magnify the value of their marketing investments.

4. Weave In Your Brand Story
Whether consumers encounter a brand at home, in the store, on TV, at the stadium, or on the move, great stories draw them in and hold it all together. Every touch point is an opportunity to show who you are. Sports can amplify the return of all other media—digital, social, print, etc. But the opportunity is diminished if carried out in isolation or simply tacked on as an afterthought.

Consider M.J. Bale, a fashion brand that needed to generate awareness and significantly expand its retail footprint in Australia. As Official Tailors to the Australian Cricket Team, it had access to one raw material its competitors didn’t: Australian victory. It leveraged a minor sponsorship in a way that revolutionized its products and made its brand story exciting to consumers and retailers. Bale replanted grass from the Sydney Cricket Ground at its Merino sheep farm, then made suits from wool harvested from sheep fed on the sacred grass. Bale added 38 new retailers to its network, suit orders grew 520 percent, and ROI in year one was $14 to $1.

5. Balance The Portfolio
No single sports deal will do it all. Marketers should manage sponsorship as a portfolio rather than a series of one-offs. Managing holistically reveals both conflicting images that dilute brand impact, as well as overlapping strengths and weaknesses.

For example, each property in Heineken’s portfolio plays a different role. Champions League creates awareness in countries where the brand has a limited presence; James Bond is about trial; while rugby delivers against the brand’s retention objectives.

With their large, live and passionate audiences, sports are ideally suited to deliver content and other assets to marketing partners. But as with athletes on the field, the brands that win will be those that dedicate time and energy to learning new skills, understanding the playbook, developing their agility, building a great team, analyzing the competition, knowing their heart, and focusing on the ultimate goal.

About Lesa Ukman

In addition to working directly with sponsor and property clients of IEG’s Sponsorship Consulting and Research groups, Lesa Ukman is IEG’s primary product development director, having most recently led the launch of the company’s Return On Sponsorship service, and also is responsible for the content and focus of IEG’s Annual Sponsorship Conference. She also is on the faculty of Northwestern University’s Master of Arts in Sports Administration program.