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Brand Strategy Mobile Sports Marketing

Inside TikTok’s fast-tracked Euro 2020 sponsorship: ‘I’ve never worked so fast and hard’


By John McCarthy, Opinion editor

June 7, 2021 | 7 min read

In February 2021, TikTok surprised many by announcing a global sponsorship of the Uefa Euro 2020, the delayed football tournament set to kick off just four months later. The clock was ticking, and James Rothwell, its head of marketing EMEA, explains how he managed to pull together its first big sports sponsorship in record time.


‘Where Fans Play’ is TikTok’s first work celebrating its partnership with Euro 2020

Last year, TikTok exceeded more than 100 million users in both the US and Europe – a strong addition to 600 million Douyin users in China, but it is still far off the billions of Facebook and YouTube. Enter football.

TikTok’s EMEA marketing boss Rothwell has been reckoning with an inherent truth: “In Europe, you can’t [be the most related brand on the internet] without relevance in football, it is the lifeblood of European culture.”

So then the pandemic “opened the door for us to come in as a sponsor,” says Rothwell. In 2019, the app “probably ... didn’t have the stature and growth ... to come in”. But 2020, as we know, drove millions of people and thousands of brands on to the platform.

It had matured to the point it could become the first-ever tech and entertainment sponsor of the Euros, which as Rothwell says was “a big bet and a bit of a risk”. Less so for Uefa, whose marketing director, Guy-Laurent Epstein, named TikTok as “one of the most talked-about digital entertainment platforms within the last year”.

For the competition, with its reduced stadia fandom, digital buzz was ever more important – especially with the reformatted tournament going up against a busy slate of delayed competitions.

But while some partnerships are years in the making, this fast-track approach “is not necessarily something I would replicate,” says Rothwell. Conversations started with Uefa around September and were signed in January, and in mid-February Creative agency Dark Horses was appointed to “handle all of the creative sponsorship work”.

A lot of work in not very much time.

“I’ve never worked that fast and hard in my life to get it done. You know, you’re talking about two behemoths coming together in two months, when most sponsors would take four years to kind of rally the troops.”

It’s worth remembering TikTok didn’t even exist during Euro 2016.

Which brings us to the...


‘Where Fans Play’ is TikTok’s first work celebrating the partnership. New Order’s Blue Monday shows us a bunch of iconic football moments, interspersed with very TikTok additions. It signals that this mix of footage and fandom will be the cornerstone of the partnership. Naturally, the brand secured the permissions to use the content back catalog and licensed soundtracks, and built AR filters too.

The campaign will raise awareness and show fans the things they can do on the platform. Rothwell says its purpose is to “give creators a megaphone”. It is rushing to become the place where fans get creative with their fandom and celebrate the tournament.

As Rothwell says, the campaign serves to catalyze user-generated creativity: “We will never be as powerful as hundreds of millions of people remixing their own version of culture. That’s just in the DNA of our products.”

Caroline McCulloch, business director at Dark Horses, reflected on months of effort that included, in the hero film, the difficult task of stitching user-generated content on to real footage.

“We wondered what role TikTok could play in bringing fans back to football. We’re the new kids on the sponsorship block.” But don’t let that excuse land – there are big expectations.

McCulloch says agency and client had to become “one team” to deliver the campaign. “We were in constant contact, the [deadline] forced fast decision making and collaboration.”

Reaction and localization

But this is more than a simple sponsorship, as Rothwell says: “We’re a media partner, a content ecosystem, a creative platform that just allows us to flex and have a bit more fun with how we bring the sponsorship.”

A big part of this is reacting to the events in less than 24 hours. “Because our product is culture. So we have to move at speed. We have to be reactive.”

It is enabling fans to meld football with music, entertainment and humor, and it hopes to become the camera favored by all in the sport – which has its difficulties.

McCulloch says: “How do you find that one pithy thing that both translates well and is also untapped? The more assets you create and the more touchpoints you go to, the more opportunity there is for misinterpretation.” And that’s across the UK, Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Russia, Middle East, North Africa, Japan and Canada.

So spare a thought for the marketers sitting on laptops tracking fixtures, sentiments, creative and media buys to ensure, say, English creative doesn’t run in Scotland or that hopeful Scottish assets continue to run after the inevitable disappointment. Media has been bought in advance in many cases around big fixtures – what will be running in those spots? Your guess is as good as theirs.

Rothwell said ads can be “interchanged” within 24 hours depending on what happens on the pitch. “Our brand is our content, our content is our brand. We’ll be combining iconic sports moments with brilliant user-generated content based on the country with a localized brand voice and a sense of community.”

McCulloch adds: “It would be very easy to be overwhelmed by getting this stuff live.” She’s tried to calculate how many assets would be cooked up during the campaign “and just decided to stop”.

There’s a reluctance to send a generic headline to everyone. She says: “Football fans see and live football slightly differently. Different countries and different teams, you know, deal with their kind of success or failure ... we want to recognize that, so we had to find that unifying point and bring it all together.”

As part of the package TikTok also got broadcast sponsorship rights, which means it’ll crop up in European broadcasts frequently – which ought to drive downloads and engagement.

Futhermore, out-of-home murals will be going live in multiple nations – it appears that TikTok isn’t exclusively ‘where fans play’. “We’re really trying to bring football back to the streets. And we’re doing some brilliant work with urban football pitches and kind of allowing people to play football through TikTok as well.”

As hundreds of partners get staged on TikTok in preparation for the tournament, it’ll hope to keep fans and organizations posting on the platform well after the cup gets lifted. When the partnership was announced in February, there were 70bn uses of #football. That’s just surpassed 125bn, and 60bn in soccer. In short, before a ball has even been kicked, the Euros clearly have inspired fans to find a new home.

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