Sector insight: Sport and fitness

Reebok recently invited fitness fans to earn prizes, by freeing them from blocks of ice
Reebok recently invited fitness fans to earn prizes, by freeing them from blocks of ice

This year is set to be a big one for sport, with the Rio Olympics and Uefa Euro 2016 championship taking place this summer, and that's just for starters.

Following the London 2012 Olympics, record government funding was pledged for investment in sports and athletes via UK sport - an organisation funded by the Department for Culture, Media & Sport and the National Lottery - with the aim of further improving the UK’s medal tally in Rio.

So with investment and interest in sport, and this country having experienced an upwards trajectory, how are sports brands using this to connect with consumers?

Paul Saville, joint managing director at Wasserman Experience, say the success of the Olympics and other multi-sport games has generated huge interest in a variety of lesser-known sports among UK fans. "As participation in these events grew, it widened the playing field for sports brands," he explains.

"Brands can now shift their focus from tier one sports, such as football and rugby, to other sports such as athletics and cycling." The wider breadth of sport for fans has opened up new revenue streams as well as broadened the platform that brands can communicate with and engage fans through, he adds.

"Brands can now almost own the space and become synonymous with these sports. You can see this in the way that Red Bull has increased interest in extreme sports, as well as Sky which is doing incredibly well with their partnership in cycling," continues Saville. "Sky has supported Team GB and sponsored events from grassroots all the way through to elite. They’ve even got their own team."

Jim Carless, head of client services at agency Space says that brands have recognised the power of fan networks, which are now influencing campaign content. "Social media has given brands and their sports ambassadors a direct line of communication to those consumers who care the most, which has enabled them to be much more relevant," he explains.

Activation trends

Nick Burrows, marketing director at TRO, says that from the agency’s own experience, sports brands are pushing to connect more with grassroots sports participants at their level. "Brand activations are moving more towards ‘keeping it real’ and there is less focus on having sports ambassadors/legends at the centre of every campaign," he explains. 

Michael Parker, director of sponsorship at Dentsu Aegis Network Sport & Entertainment, says he has noticed an increase in the use of fan zones, as they enable brands to engage with more consumers than could fit into a sports stadium.

There is also the issue of sponsors’ rights. "In the Rugby World Cup brands like O2, for example, have a vested interest in rugby and sponsor the England Rugby team, however they had no visibility as they weren’t a sponsor of the tournament," Parker explains.

Therefore its activity around the event with its giveaway of England rugby shirts on a giant clothes line, #Weartherose concert and presence at fan zones was a key way of being visibly associated with the event. "I think experiential continues to have a massive part to play in bringing a brand to life on a face-to-face basis," he adds.

Another trend is the use of ‘influencers’ in brand experiences says Saville. "The 2012 Olympics seemed to kick-start this, particularly with the use of women and paralympians as ambassadors. However as more and more consumers buy into the idea of a healthy lifestyle, sports brands have also evolved to use influencers from outside the world of sport," he explains. "For example, Nike uses model Karlie Kloss as a brand ambassador and Under Armour has model Gisele Bundchen fronting its products."

While Andrew Douglass, co-founder and CEO of Innovision believes there is a general trend in creating experiences that have a purpose. "It’s no longer about showcasing a product, but about authentically evolving relationships with consumers," he says. "Take Adidas’s ‘The X’ pop-up in London’s Victoria Park – this was created to provide young women with fitness experiences. The Adidas insight was that the jogging path in Victoria Park is closed in winter and participation decreases. So, they saw the chance to make a meaningful social impact with a purpose."

Are sport and fitness related activations on the up?

Certain brands are very active on the experiential and live events front, devising large-scale and often globally integrated campaigns, such as Nike’s global running events and Adidas’ #BeTheDifference campaign. Other recent sporting activations have included FitBit with its multi-tiered obstacle course, which was created for a Sport Relief event at the Olympic Park last month, and Puma’s immersive launch event for its new Puma x Red Bull Racing Lifestyle collection.

Richard Adelsberg, head of client services at Ear to the Ground, says brands are certainly taking a more integrated approach towards experiential, "and this can only be a positive for the growth of the industry".

He advises brands to not only focus on the live experience, but on how user-generated content, or their own content, is perceived online, by their young and socially selective audience. "The continued emergence and value of online influencer networks doesn’t mean a decrease in experiential, it does however make their digital output one of (if not the) primary factor when conceptualising an experiential campaign," he says.

Saville agrees that there has definitely been a rise in the number of activations within the sports brands sector. "With 70% of millennials blocking irrelevant banner ads online from brands, building a quality brand experience that has digital interactivity and social media at its heart offers a way around the ad blockers, and offers fans a unique platform to engage with a brand on."

Mass participation events

According to Douglass, there has been an exponential rise in mass participation events - most notably running, cycling and swimming. "Arguably this is now at saturation point and innovation is the key to further growth in this space," he says. 

"Many sports brands recognise the value and emotional resonance of shared experience, hence the rise of group participation. But cost also plays a big part. For brands who wish to focus on depth, this generally means a more intimate environment in which to create an authentic brand immersion. This is by far the most powerful way to engage consumers, but it is generally more expensive."

On the flip side, sports naturally lead themselves to mass participation events which build a community, believes Saville. "The rise in experiences based around group participation means that fans are able to foster, develop and deepen their passion for a sport and brand even further."

Carless also agrees that there are more group participation events, but says "brands are using these events to establish personal relationships with individual participants and build permission-based connections".

"There is also a higher degree of product personalisation than ever before, which is all about the individual, eg. Nike ID," he adds. 

Summer of sport

There will always be two camps during the season of big sporting events, says Burrows: "those who are official sponsors and activate as a result of this, and those who look to take advantage of the sporting wave and ride on the back of the conversations that are going to be had.

"There are pros and cons to both approaches, but in our opinion the brands that win with experiential activity during big sporting events are those that are relevant, credible and start up a genuine dialogue that people want to engage with," he says.

Saville points out that as the majority of this summer's major sporting events are taking place outside of the UK, brands that are successful at connecting with consumers will be those that bring fans closer to events such as the European Championships or the Olympics.

"This could be in the form of fan parks or live screenings, or offering added value to the viewing experience through the second screen, or behind the scenes content," he says. "The behind the scenes content could come in the form of experiences such as O2’s VR experience which put fans in the middle of an actual England Rugby training session."

Douglass points out that, from an Olympic perspective the IOC has tightened its grip on how it protects its sponsors, so many brands will probably look to avoid any potential legal action. "There may be the odd Fan Park and activity from the national governing bodies, plus the TOP Sponsors (the Olympic partner programme). But I expect much of this will be digitally or socially driven," he forecasts.

"I think the greater activity will be around the Euros – with many of the home nations in the competition, it provides brands with great opportunities to engage at a local level. But England’s performance in the recent Rugby World Cup taught many brands a hard lesson – the risk is that interest switches off once your team is knocked out. So, I expect many brands to take a nimble approach and respond creatively to opportunities as teams progress, rather than committing budgets to a longer campaign."

Other brands and sporting events

When it comes to other non-sporting brands connecting with consumers through sporting events, there are certainly a few sectors which are keen to get a slice of the action. For example Kwik Fit recently devised its Fit Kwik fitness events - a far cry from the brand’s traditional image, and automotive brands often sponsor key sporting events, such as Volvo and Cowes Week, and Nissan at the UEFA Champions League Final.

Carless says that sports sponsorship enables brands to connect with huge audiences who experience shared passion points. "For example, premium automotive brands have longstanding association with golf. They use this platform to connect with both owners and prospects as well as internal stakeholders. They are able to deliver unique privilege to these audiences in terms of access to content, talent, experiences etc."

Adelsberg says its insight team is seeing an explosion of virtual tech brands moving into the sports arena. "Connecting with sport properties is a fantastic way of engaging huge audiences and building confidence for brands that don't actually own anything. It's no surprise that new-tech behemoth brands like Uber and Airbnb are investing in sport and experiential to make themselves 'real'. We are expecting a lot more of this from cash rich high growth tech start-ups that need to build trust quickly."

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