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Why brands should do more to push Brits into sport

Today’s marketers live in a craven state of panic as they try to seize on or adapt to the latest marketing trend, buzz phrase, or piece of essential new technology (Oculus Rift anybody?) With everybody chasing their tails, worried about missing the latest microtrend, Professor Leslie de Chernatony helps businesses separate brand magic from hype.

As the Rugby World Cup crunches into gear, the UK is going through one of its periodic love affairs with sport. Although it would be unrealistic to expect RWC 2015 to have the national impact of London 2012, the early signs are that the oval balled game is lighting a passion with consumers. Pubs are packed, alcohol, soft drinks and snacks are flying off shelves, and takeaways are doing a roaring trade as Britain scrums down for the action.

That’s one of the problems with Britain as a sports loving nation. We tend to show our adoration in a rather sedentary fashion. The most recent figures on sport participation post Olympics made for dispiriting reading with rates falling three years after the event. Despite the £9bn invested in the Games, their legacy looks likely to be crowded out by growing obesity and poor health. As participation in sport softens, the World Health Organisation claims that in 15 years’ time 74 per cent of men and 64 per cent of women in the UK will be obese.

It’s a common criticism that the sorts of brands that associate themselves with sport tend to be those that don’t have the best credentials. Sugar, fat, salt and alcohol doesn’t make for a breakfast of champions. People’s champion Jamie Oliver has waded into the war on sugar, so the chances are that the temperature will continue to rise.

This may all seem rather unfair for brands that have spent years ploughing cash into sport, often at grassroots, as well as the top level. Many of these companies have made efforts to get Britain’s heart rate up by encouraging us to try out sports and swap the sofa for the sports hall, but their efforts have lacked success.

As a group, Britain has become increasingly sedentary. We may love to cheer on our favourite teams, but it doesn’t seem to inspire us to try and emulate them, even if it’s only at the amateur, kick-about level. In the same way that we watch cookery programmes and then throw a ready meal in the oven, sport seems to have lost its ability to change our behaviour. Instead too many of us settle into habits that will eventually kill us.

But brands really do have an opportunity to make a difference. Like it or not, when brands speak they are heard by consumers in a way that government propaganda isn’t. If David Beckham tweeted that he liked nothing better than finishing a meal with an apple, it would arguably have more of an effect on healthy eating than the entire Change 4 Life programme. As the NHS struggles to deal with the increasing strain brought about by people’s poor lifestyle choices, there is a real role for brands.

Ironically many sports brands have fought shy of having too high a profile in this debate. Maybe they are slightly embarrassed at the increasing disparity between their support for elite sport and the reality of where they make their money – selling XXL versions of the gear our sporting heroes wear to out of condition Brits.

It shouldn’t be like that. There used to be a campaign called Sport for All, and maybe we can learn something from that simple ambition. Many of us know that we should exercise more, but it can be hard to find a way back in. Sports brands own the key relationship with consumers who want to do more, and as such are in a great position to educate and inform to create real behavioural change. Nudge marketing may be the flavour of the month, but when it comes to shifting attitudes maybe it’s time that marketers and brands actually started to shove.

Professor Leslie de Chernatony is a board director at Life Agency