Interbrand: How brands can win sports fans over behind closed doors

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Geoff Miller, the associate director for brand consultancy Interbrand, writes for Insider Sport to discuss how brands can adapt to behind closed door events in order to maintain a strong fanbase and maximise appeal.

At a time where our habits and daily rituals have been disrupted, sport remains, to paraphrase Liverpool’s manager Jurgen Klopp, “the most important of the least important things.” One only has to look at the viewing numbers for recent sporting moments, from ESPN’s “The Last Dance” to the NWSL’s record-shattering return on CBS, to the BBC’s successful airing of the Premier League, to see sports’ critical value in our daily lives. 

Where so many aspects of our future are uncertain, it only takes a glance at 2023’s predicted esport viewership (over 46m) and anticipated value of $2,175m to understand that our global obsession with sports—traditional and digital—will remain one of the few constants in our rapidly changing normal.

For brands operating as sponsors and partners within the broader sports ecosystem, the question is therefore not whether to continue to invest in sports and gaming, but how to do so. Without captive audiences in the stands, how can team and league sponsors monetise the new gameday experience to their audiences without seeming opportunistic? With competition formats changing, how do team and league partners evaluate the risks and rewards of investing in specific properties?

As esports continues to rise in popularity, how much should brands re-focus their efforts off the traditional field of play? The brands able to navigate this changing landscape successfully will have a deep understanding of who they are, the role they play in the world—and what partnerships are best suited to maximise visibility and return on investment. 

VISA offers an initial case study in success. As a brand that aims “to connect the world” through its products and services, the Olympics — and Olympic athletes – have always offered an ideal platform to elevate the brand. Past its active advocating for postponement of the 2020 Summer Olympics (instead of cancelling the event altogether), VISA doubled down on its support for its athletes and its global community. 

Through its “Do Your Part Like An Olympian” campaign, VISA quickly re-purposed a near-complete advertising campaign to celebrate both its athletes and the common global cause of fighting COVID-19. Rather than running the originally planned tongue-in-cheek comparison of gruelling athletic activities with the ease of using VISA’s products, the re-focused campaign instead juxtaposed clips of VISA athletes performing in-home feats with simple actions, such as handwashing, that all of us can take to combat the spread of coronavirus. By staying close to its mission, VISA helped us all remember the true role of the Olympics and our shared effort as “athletes” in the fight against COVID-19. 

In addition to using their brand values to guide their actions, sponsors and partners also need to creatively meet fans on their own turf. Take the Tour de France, the cycling world’s mid-summer showcase. Postponed due to COVID-19, the event is nonetheless racing forward with a virtual edition, hosted by Zwift, which will pit both male and female riders — a first — in a three-weekend competition next month. 

In addition to having exposure to an 130 country strong global audience, sponsors for each of the 40 teams will be able to lay a claim to promoting gender equality in the sport, celebrating health and community in a time of isolation, and raising awareness and funding for five leading global charities. 

With the “real-life” tour still expected to go forward later this summer, July’s race around a digital France literally and figuratively brings these brands into the living rooms of consumers across the planet. Further, the event provides a creative platform for Zwift to generate brand awareness as it takes on its rivals in the home fitness and training category 

As brands continue to navigate turbulent times, no single method for engagement or playbook for sponsorship will deliver guaranteed returns. Nonetheless, by understanding their essence and their customers, brands can make smart decisions about where and how to place their bets — and continue to deliver financial and societal impact.