By John McCarthy | Opinion editor

November 19, 2018 | 9 min read

Puma Football and Bleacher Report Football have partnered to help commit the impoverished childhood of Manchester United forward Romelu Lukaku to music in a collaboration between Antwerp musician TheColorGrey and the footballer. The content shows how the Turner-owned media brand is working with brands on “sought out” branded content at the intersection points of culture – rather than just delivering views for partners.

The publisher pitched to Puma that Belgian striker and Puma athlete Lukaku, a big music fan, should drop a track after he signed on to Jay-Z talent agency athlete agency, Roc Nation Sports. Lukaku requested that fellow Belgian TheColorGrey was the man to tell the story.

Puma and the pair, with the publisher's help, have released New Levels, a single that will live on Spotify and Apple Music, with Bleacher Report in keen possession of the behind-the-scenes videos – its take on branded content. Parent company Turner Music will hold the copyright on the track.

More than football

Lee Walker, managing editor of Bleacher Report, told The Drum how work like this epitomises how it works with brands in a space intersecting music, sports and culture to create memorable content.

Music’s place in football was once relegated to the stands and the odd memorable World Cup anthem, now, more than ever, it sits closer to the sport. Its use in football advertising in spots like Nike’s Nothing Beats a Londoner and Lukaku teammate Paul Pogba’s Adidas collaboration shows this. During the World Cup, Umbro even parodied the trend.

Walker said: “It is branded content, a paid partnership, but it is good content. Puma put it in place but it taps into the very essence of what we do and has editorial merits.” He noted that this output requires time and investment, and wouldn't necessarily be of interest to brands not entwined with sports. It has now worked with Adidas, Nike and Puma and it is clear what brands it can best cater for.

Previous work for Puma includes an animated short around Barcelona’s Luis Suarez signing with the apparel brand. This portrayed the hot-tempered forward as a cowboy – taking to a table with the Puma athlete stable including Lukaku and Marco Reus.

Reach vs engagement

Bleacher Report claims to reach 250 million people across all platforms and boasts being the largest US sports social media publisher according to data from Shareablee. According to Comscore data it is the favoured sports app for 19 to 34 year-olds. It has 8 million Facebook followers, 2 million on Instagram and 850,000 on Twitter.

Walker admitted that it does not have enough scale for some media buyers but points instead to its engagement levels and the quality of its output.

“We can talk about Facebook accounts that have had financial trouble despite having 35 million followers. It doesn't mean anything if no one is engaging with the content. It is like saying 'I play at Old Trafford' when there are only 12 people inside the stadium.”

He added: “Our engagement rates propel us. If you actually grab someone's attention and build on that by making an emotional connection with quality content rather than here's another cat video, that gives you a great chance.”

BR is attempting to find “white spaces” or gaps in the market. Whether that is animated, football reality TV show The Champions, the Suarez western or a Lukaku music video. “From this cross-section of football and culture, you get a multiplication factor for what a young audience is passionate about.”

This activity centres around one belief, one being leveraged by many media companies: “We've got to be a creative consultancy for these brands.” To achieve this they must avoid the urge to plaster their badges and logos all over the work. In the New Levels behind the scenes video, the branding only appears briefly at the end.

Fans should expect more of this from the title.

Built for social

In many ways, BR has to reflect changes in modern sport. It has acknowledged that fans want to get closer to the players.

"Lukaku and his teammate Jesse Lingard are music guys and fashion icons. You may have once had a poster on the wall of your favourite player. That fandom has not changed but now we have more insight into players with Snapchat and Instagram Stories. Most young people like sport, music, fashion and increasingly gaming, so these are increasingly adjacent.”

Just before the World Cup, the Belgian secured Puma as his boot supplier after a two-year spell without any backing. The video looks to further inform fans about which brand is powering Lukaku's performance on the pitch.

Walker said: “We've a huge weight of audience understanding. Our social interactions are of the charts because we are tapping into what people want to share in the right way, not boring footballer quotes. This understanding feeds how we speak to brands."

He admitted it is going to be difficult to direct fans from social to its homepage. To this end, it is about building social presences bespoke to platform.

"We are looking at seven surfaces on social. IGTV, Instagram Stories and Instagram are three separate entities. There is Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Snapchat. Increasingly you can't cut and paste. There is not a one-size-fits-all routine here."

This carries an intrinsic value for brands, appearing alongside high-quality content Walker concluded: "We are carving out the right options, we can mix and match. We're not The Sun throwing clickthrough links on Twitter to prop up our programmatic ads. That won't roll long-term."

This makes the title less reliant on displayed advertising on owned media and more dependent on building relationships with brands.

Empowering this, earlier this year, Bleacher Report recruited Ed Romaine to the newly established position of chief brand officer. He was to give the marketing and sales teams a shot in the arm, leveraging his experience at Conde Nast.

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