Sports Marketing Premier League Marketing

Inside Project Restart: Premier League sponsors embrace new tactics for football's return


By John McCarthy, Opinion editor

June 9, 2020 | 12 min read

Whether it's the best football league in the world or simply the best-marketed one, the Premier League's return is big news for fans and sponsors starved of action. Absence has indeed made the heart fonder according to top marketers from Cadbury, Coca-Cola, Barclays and Budweiser, official partners who now look upon the property in a new light. Here they share how their tactics will take shape come kick-off on 17 June.

Project Restart: What Premier League partners learned from lockdown

Project Restart: What Premier League partners learned from lockdown

When sport went dark, a Sisyphean effort was required to get the ball rolling again. The alternative was unthinkable. Properties like the Premier League, the Olympics and the Euros faced an existential crisis, and a huge bill, if they couldn't deliver for fans, sponsors and broadcasters. Rebates aside, there’s been a large fall in global sports sponsorship revenues this year, one study claims 37% year on year, Whether this overstates the damage or not, there will be a knock-on effect.

However, following in the footsteps of the Bundesliga's 'Geisterspiele' ('ghost games' played in empty stadiums), the Premier League and its esteemed partners are now set for a 17 June return with a host of health and safety measures in place. The remaining 92 matches will be played behind closed doors, all broadcast live through Sky, BT, Amazon and the BBC in lieu of live attendance. The rules of engagement have changed, and the engagement is far from guaranteed.

Here's how the partners are approaching this unique situation.

Cadbury (official snack)

Cadbury was starting to see some real results in football before lockdown. Its 'Donate Your Words' programme, a partnership with Age UK designed to help the lonely elderly, was finding itself comfortably slipping into the football conversation (football is, after all, the go-to conversation starter for many).

The snack giant most recently worked with Manchester United to reward older fans with matchday experiences. That was just the start of the activity as the season advanced.

The campaign found new life when this demographic was found to be most at risk from the virus, and social contact was cut off.

Colin O'Toole, the associate director of marketing of Cadbury equity, said: “We couldn’t have known that just weeks later a lot more people in the UK would experience a similar kind of isolation and lack of human contact themselves. A lot of us will come out of lockdown and get to meet with friends and family but there are a lot of older people in our communities that will continue to be isolated but also need to feel connected, it only takes a couple of words.”

In other words, Cadbury’s message of togetherness and combating loneliness became energised. As football returns, Cadbury’s going to go big on these themes – and while it can’t share the details yet, The Drum would expect to see some tear-jerking moments in keeping with its recent emotional ad campaigns.

In an ongoing Cadbury packaging promotion devised in simpler times, fans are still being pitched the chance to win a day with football stars Harry Kane, Virgil Van Dijk or Eden Hazard – at some point. On that subject, spare a thought for brands whose packaging, prepared months ago, is now tied to still-frozen properties like the Champions League, the Euros or the Olympics – all a sad reminder of the summer that could have been.

O’Toole said: “Covid-19 has impacted pretty much everything from product logistics through to consumer shopping behaviours. Will people still need to queue outside when it is bucketing down with rain? Does that mean lower penetration or increased basket spend when they get inside? Will there be a strong downturn and how do people perceive value add promotions like our work with Premier League?”

These questions remain broadly unanswered at the moment. They add an extra layer of deliberation onto any action, O'Toole explained.

“It’s easier to take a wrong step right now and, things that seemed a great idea a month ago can feel inappropriate by the time you get the content actually produced."

Whatever the new Premier League brief ultimately entails, or where it goes, Cadbury must remain true to its "philanthropic beginnings and ‘Glass and a Half in Everyone’- moments", according to O'Toole.

But anyone operating in sports right now will have to closely monitor consumer sentiment, and Premier League sponsors need to be sensitive to the mood of a nation processing grief and adapting to a new way of life.

During this time, O'Toole's learned “football is not a matter of life or death, but of all the trivial things, it is one of the most important.”

Coca-Cola (official soft drink)

Coca-Cola’s been in football almost as long as football has been a ‘product’. It has been a Fifa World Cup partner since 1974 and has advertised at every tournament in-stadium since 1950. In the Premier League, it is a fresh-faced babe by comparison, just launching in January 2019.

Oliver Bridge, senior brand manager at Coca-Cola Great Britain and Ireland, admitted that Coca-Cola has had to adapt its plans as the sport went into its enforced hiatus. The priorities “focused on supporting staff, communities and front-line workers”.

As well as one million donated drinks in Great Britain, with its bottling partners, the Coca-Cola Foundation has contributed over $120m globally to support Covid-19 relief efforts.

But this approach is set to evolve, particularly with the return of the Premier League. It will push out M&C Saatchi’s ‘Where Everyone Plays’ message which celebrates the whole spectrum of those who help “make the league special”, be that fans or staff. In pandemic, those bringing us the distraction of football deserve that extra bit of thanks.

The postponement of Euro 2020 to 2021 and the freeze on the Premier League gave Bridge a lot to think about.

He said: “There is clearly excitement about the return of the Premier League, but as we all navigate a new normal, of course caution is required. As a partner of the Premier League, we navigate this by keeping in constant communication and support their aim to manage the return of the Premier League in a safe way.

“There’s no question that the Premier League has been missed by a lot of people over these past few months and the importance of it in British culture and around the world has only been heightened by this hiatus – the power of football has never been more apparent.”

Taking his marketer hat off for a second, he concluded: “Like the fans, we can’t wait for it to come back to our screens, and we will be there celebrating alongside them when it does.”

Barclays (official bank)

Barclays is approaching its 20th year as a Premier League partner. To many, force of habit means the competition remains the Barclays Premier League, a throwback to its long-running status as title sponsor, even though EA Sports holds 'lead partner' status now. Such is the power of a long-lasting relationship. Officially, Barclays shifted a gear into the more-relevant banking partner position a few years ago.

Tom Corbett, group head of sponsorships and media at Barclays, believes that in some ways the sponsorship has become more valuable than it was pre-lockdown. There's a great demand for football content, the value of historical rights has risen, and the banking business has been leaning into both, more than ever.

He said: “We’ve had a cry out from our business wing to be providing and producing more content. We’ve been keeping people amused during this period and our football sponsorships have become even more important than they ever were before."

Working with the likes of Arsenal and England legend Ian Wright and women's football stars Chelcee Grimes and Kelly Smith, Barclays has been digging into the weird phenomena of football in lockdown.

“It pushed us to rethink quite quickly. Our rights were centred around physical stuff, in the stadiums, sending clients to meet managers, or sending players into schools to do training. None of this could happen anymore.

“We had to work fast to understand how we continue to get the value from those properties in a period where we're all socially distancing and staying apart."

Its existing partnerships with football talent became vital (apparently they have been worked "quite hard"). "They've been really valuable assets while we've not had access to the physical side of the game…"

Corbett recalled how a Zoom call between Premier League legend Alan Shearer and a few lucky Hong Kong clients went off without a hitch. Barclays had even posted them a beverage of their choice to enjoy during the experience.

"It worked phenomenally well, we may not need to fly people over, the logistics of that are crazy... and often complicated. The online environment worked really well and was much more cost-effective."

He dubbed the return of football as a "huge step in the right direction and a small signal of getting back to normality"

There are no huge marketing plans for in place for the commencement of the season. All eyes are all on 20/21's fresh slate.

He concluded: "It'll be interesting to see the shape of the game after it is back up and running without fans."

Budweiser (official beer)

Amar Singh is head of football content and strategy for Budweiser. He believes it is the partners' job to bring fans closer to football. In normal times, this would be a rather obvious statement. In so-called unprecedented times, this forms the backbone of any sports marketing brief.

With the new challenges come limitations but also opportunities to innovate.

Bud’s been building the ‘Support From Home’ experience.

It’s had to, without any beer-drinking occurring in stadiums or pubs. But while adjusting to current behaviours, it still has one eye on the future. The beer behemoth is encouraging punters to pre-purchase pints to help tide over the local watering holes, with a pay it forward style voucher.

For now, it's had success with the pub quiz format.

Writing in a piece for The Drum in May, Singh said: “The prospect of a six-week flurry of live football – on TV only – might not be the celebration of humanity that will need to happen once life returns to normal, but it will certainly be a huge step in the right direction.”

Budweiser, as a huge stakeholder in physical events – be they in sports, music or just general pub-going – is faced with the challenge of driving renewed relevance. The return of its classic ad 'Whassup', with a new spin, showed how the brand was thinking on its feet.

As for the sports properties, Singh thinks the lockdown will force a rethink of what football fandom is: “In the hierarchy of football fans, it’s the supporter who follows from a distance who has so often been regarded as less deserving of recognition or somehow less of a fan than the loyal season ticket holder.”

There’s been a huge new emphasis on the digital battleground for brands to consider.

He concluded: “Just because fans will be physically detached does not mean they should be psychologically and emotionally detached from the action when it returns.”

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