With restrictions on gambling advertising in Italy tightening, betting companies have been forced to undertake a fresh strategy to marketing, reshaping themselves as ‘media brands’ to maximise consumer engagement.

In July 2019, the Italian communications authority introduced the Dignity Decree which prohibited all sports leagues and clubs from promoting or advertising gambling-related brands.

However, in April last year, a plea was issued to the government by various Italian sport leaders to restore betting advertising for 12 months in order to support professional leagues, sports clubs and athletes through the COVID-19 crisis, which has cost Italian football clubs and leagues ‘€100 million’ in lost sponsorship and broadcast opportunities

Speaking at SBC Digital – Italy, on the ‘Marketing and advertising under tightening restrictions’ panel, Shaun Simmonds, Managing Director of Superstar Digital, explained how sports federations and clubs were driven to ‘enforced evolution’ when the ban was implemented to find a way around the restrictions.

“We felt that a lot of our marketing channels and opportunities were being taken away from us, but since then that has inspired creativity and there has been an enforced evolution in the way that we’ve approached it from a marketing aspect,” he argued. “A lot of the research we’ve done has shown there’s obviously been a huge shift towards online from retail, and that’s been generated by the pandemic.

“There are sports news websites that we’ve seen emerging, so StarCasino.Sport, for example, and I’ve been involved in something very similar with SportPesa as well in terms of sports news. So, I think that’s where we’re seeing this evolution.”

With more gambling firms recognising the importance of marketing their companies as ‘more than just a betting brand’, Simmonds highlighted how companies have transformed their brands into ‘lifestyle’ oriented websites, bringing fans and users sports news as well as betting news, and focussing on the ‘infotainment’ aspect of the business.

The former Marathonbet employee also likened StarCasino and other Italian betting brands to LiveScore in the UK, which has since expanded its portfolio and moved away from standalone betting products.

He continued: “I think something that quite kind of stood out to me was a meeting I had the best part of 10 years ago when I was at Marathonbet. Our then-CEO said the way that legislation was evolving – not just throughout Europe but throughout a lot of the kind of grey markets and in Latin America as well – it’s going to be the more lifestyle brands that are successful. And I think we’re slowly seeing the evolution of a lot of online betting brands, where they’re seeing value in offering other services.”

Pietro Lechiara, Managing Director of Betsson Group in Italy, echoed Simmonds’ thoughts, recalling how the company was forced to begin thinking ‘outside of the box’ in the aftermath of the advertising ban. He cited StarCasino’s new StarCasino.sport portal, which the firm launched as an alternative to the operator brand. The platform generates exclusive content which Lechiara insisted was pivotal to keeping the brand alive.

“We launched a new line of businesses which are informative websites or social apps,” Lechiara remarked. “At Betsson, when the ban on advertising arrived, we started analysing our strengths and we have always been a customer centric brand with the ability to provide valuable content to our customers. We didn’t want everything we built up to be lost.

“So, we created a new company called StarCasino Entertainment. This is the company where we launched every new project related to non-gambling businesses. StarCasino.Sport and StarCasino Gratis are the two examples that we have successfully launched in the latest year.”

The betting brand, which has agreements with top flight Serie A outfits including Napoli, Inter Milan and AC Milan, has been tapped by a handful of sports clubs to boost fan engagement, offering supporters ‘a new way to experience’ their favourite team.

“We put a lot of effort to create something unique and something that is not in the market. We coined the ‘media of sports entertainment’. We don’t just create websites where we publish news and the latest news about sports or some articles about sport, we are making something different. We are creating exclusive content, especially videos. 

He added: “We are making a platform of entertainment about sports with a lot of interaction between the supporters, and the protagonist of the sports like journalists and influencers.”

Moreover, viewing the advertising ban as an ‘opportunity rather than a threat’ has been key to navigating the ever-tightening restrictions, according to Giovanni Bertoli, Chief Executive Officer at Wall Street Football.

The panellist discussed how the gambling industry has merged with the entertainment sector and become more engagement focussed, integrating new features to retain sports fans’ attention and spread their brand through simple ‘word of mouth’.

He said: “This is a great example of how this regulation basically brought us creativity in solutions that perhaps the industry would have not reached without this problem. I think in this case the topic is the connection between gambling industry, entertainment in general and user engagement.

“Before this law, there had been a lot of attention toward just advertising and marketing because the playing field where operators were competing was just the user acquisition based on advertising, whereas now it’s probably all about engaging the user. The money and the time that was before invested in advertising is now invested – or should be invested – in product innovation and in the creation of new solutions.”

Bertoli explained how the ban has created a ‘race at the top’ in the country, with operators competing to have the most regulated market, but fan engagement remains at the heart of the contest now.

“A user that is engaged is a user that is going to speak about your platform to other users, and basically, this is word of mouth, which is a type of advertising which is legal and which is free as well. And when you do a new type of solution that is more engaging, you earn word of mouth.”

SBC Digital Italy, on 17 February, is the leading online conference and exhibition for the Italian betting and gaming market. Delegates can register for free here to join the event live or watch the conference sessions on demand.