Data remains 'under-exploited or ignored' in sports marketing ahead of World Cup

Adidas understood that football fans have wider interests

As we approach the World Cup, we once again find advertisers' expectations at much higher levels than those of English football fans.

Many have invested £100m to secure major sponsorship properties at the World Cup (with significantly more invested around it to activate these positions) and those marketers continue to justify this approach based on the unique reach World Cups and the Olympics can deliver. Plus the fact that sport is one of the few areas that consumers still largely want to watch ‘live’.

In truth, it is difficult to know that whether these investments will offer real value to brands, not least as generally there is not the same ROI framework (or even specific, measurable objectives) that we would expect to exist for most marketing programmes. However, what is clear is that across a broader range of sports and entertainment events, many high-profile sports rights are going unsold or at dramatically lower values and that many brands are starting to question the validity of traditional sports marketing approaches.

Central to this rethink, which has far-reaching implications for the sports marketing industry, is that the future of sports marketing lies in fusing traditional brand marketing techniques with a range of digital and emerging technologies and techniques in order to fuel much more immersive and targeted experiences for today’s consumers.

The starting point for brands should no longer be the ‘answer is the World Cup, what’s the question?’, but a much deeper data-driven interrogation of the match between their brand objectives and the passions of their audiences, with any sponsorship actively integrated into a much broader marketing agenda. Data has become ubiquitous across most marketing disciplines but remains under-exploited or ignored in many parts of sports marketing, both in upfront design of programmes and in measuring and optimising subsequent activity.

Often a data-driven approach will suggest a more niche activity – for example, Brewin Dolphin found what united its target audience was a passion for amateur cycling (which led to a media partnership with UK Cycling and the Velo Series – sportif events across the UK). Equally, it may reveal multiple passions within an audience which may require more segmented approaches. Or, as Adidas, did so successfully with Pogba and Stormzy, the uniting of two ‘passions’ into a single piece of activity. This approach struck a chord with a broad audience and ensured that the video immediately went viral across social channels.

Grassroots activities can also offer a better fit with brand objectives, something we have seen through Sky’s launch of All Stars Cricket across the UK or the Dairy Council of Northern Ireland’s sponsorship of the Milk Cup, the largest youth soccer tournament in Europe.

Equally, any activity that a brand develops to activate a sponsorship or to engage an audience needs to enhance an experience. The NBA’s experiment of offering live games in VR aims to bring the live experience into the home, but has so far appeared to gain only limited traction. A possible explanation is that VR is very much an individual, not a collective experience, so is at odds with the traditional basketball-watching at home experience (it is thus possible that AR activity may fare better).

By contrast, Copa 90’s ethos of amplifying the experience (initially outside the ‘90 minutes’) provides a more established guide of how to reach and add utility to a target audience. Not only does it provide brands with access to authentic influencers or experts who have real standing with the football fan community, but it also curates content that is distributed across all major social channels and enables fans to choose how they experience the event and related content around it. Its partnership with Snapchat at the upcoming World Cup shows how such innovative approaches can bring access to large audiences around a major event without the traditional level of up-front investment.

All in all, the World Cup certainly offers a welcome reminder that sport and other forms of entertainment remain a great way to engage consumers (in a world where adblockers, media fragmentation etc can make doing so more challenging than ever). And while there are many different approaches for exploiting the opportunities offered by such events, increasingly brands should be looking for different ways to leverage such events, rooted in marketing discipline as well as innovation, and should perhaps consider turning to broader-based marketing agencies/groups, rather than specialist sports marketing agencies, to achieve this.

Peter Reid is CEO of MSQ Partners

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