Former England rugby star Ben Kay on why Olympic sponsors will be just another spectator unless they identify real insight

With 100 days to go to until the Olympics, Rugby World Cup winner turned ad agency partner Ben Kay tells us why sports sponsors must get closer to athletes or risk wasting their investment.

With the Rio Olympics now 100 days away, get ready for an avalanche of sport-themed campaigns from the games’ sponsors. There will be shots of athletes looking moody. There will be attempts at humour. There will pumped-up exhilaration. There will even be guerilla marketing from renegade non-sponsors like Paddy Power.

But, sadly, there probably won’t be much deep insight. And that’s a crying shame. Because without thorough insight, Olympic sponsors simply become another spectator in the stands; albeit one that’s spent millions to be there.

Olympic sponsorship is a serious undertaking, possibly the most expensive commitment a marketer can make. For brands hoping to ride the wave of Olympic giddiness, a smart way to ensure a return on this gargantuan investment is to collaborate with the only people who know what it’s really like to feel and live the Olympic dream – the athletes on the ground.

By collaborate, I’m not referring to the skin-deep scenario where brands pay through the nose for the rights to use an Olympian’s image. True collaboration instead means spending enough time with the athletes to gain a visceral understanding of what goes on in their hearts and minds. Don’t leave the room until you’ve intricately understood the journey taken by each and every drop of sweat, right from the early grueling preparatory stages through to the exhilarating finale.

The resulting up-close and personal tales then become a springboard from which marketers can glean insights that match their brand proposition. This was the exact process we used when devising Adidas’ ‘Stand Together’ positioning for the 2013 Lions Tour; a strategy so successful that ‘Stand Together’ became part of the popular vernacular.

The idea was inspired by the fact that the Lions is totally different from any involvement in another team. The odds are more stacked against you. No four-year Olympic or World Cup cycle; just six weeks to pull together a scratch side to take on the best and most consistent team in the world in a three test series. And just two months beforehand, in the Six Nations championship, you have been living everything with your national team to defeat the fiercest of enemies – the very same guys who are now, as Lions, your new teammates.

To stand any chance, you have rally as a team with one purpose. It involves the players making the ultimate investment. For that short period of the tour you have to share all the secrets of your national team to fuse the best ideas and intelligence with your new teammates, even though you know they will become your foes again once the tour ends. It’s this that sparked the idea behind ‘Stand Together’.

Sport marketing is inherently dependent on passion. This is why, when done right, it can be incredibly powerful. But if this passion is recreated without a true grasp of the sport, it will be called out as fake and will backfire because, of all people, sport fans can smell inauthenticity a mile off.

Consumers instinctively sense whether a brand is exploiting or enhancing a community’s passion. But by engaging with the athletes on the pitch, track, road or rink, the campaign will be more genuine. Failure to do so risks campaigns coming across as plastic; paying lip service to the sport without any real feeling.

That said, authenticity alone will not win the gold medal. Authenticity that’s not paired with insight becomes relatively meaningless. Our ‘Give Blood’ campaign for NHS Blood & Transplant that ran throughout last year’s Rugby World Cup illustrates this point well.

We helped the brand to know the rugby world so intimately that together we identified the fact that players are prepared to put their bodies on the line and bleed for their country… a proposition that loops perfectly back to what the brand stands for. So that’s the authenticity box ticked. But what about the insight?

During big sporting events, blood donation tends to fall off by 25 per cent. So the insight, in this case, came from a friction where people were cheering for sportsmen who were bleeding for their country even though, somewhat ironically, those people weren’t prepared to do the same.

It’s this added level of combined brand and player insight that elevates a campaign from standard sponsorship tactics to powerful, memorable messaging that uses the all-pervading thrill of a big sporting event to deliver the killer blow. It’s the savviest way to move from the spectators’ stand to the winners’ podium.

Ben Kay is the co-founder of independent creative agency Pablo and was capped 62 times for England, winning the Rugby World Cup in 2003

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