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How brands can engage hard to reach audiences through celebrity and sports

by Brian Wedl

September 20, 2022

Every marketer knows that great marketing is shaped by culture, and culture is shaped by people. Sport is a consistent cultural phenomenon around the world, bringing individuals and communities together for a moment in time, reinforcing a sense of belonging and purpose. Both brands and celebrities have a unique role to play in that, and it doesn’t hurt that live sports are considered the most DVR-proof programming out there.

There’s no denying the power of sporting events in providing an international platform for brands to reach large audiences. With the FIFA World Cup 2022 in Qatar around the corner and NFL kicking off the season with its ‘It Feels Good to Football’ ad as Super Bowl fever starts to sweep across the US, brand marketers and agencies will be looking at how to activate on and off the pitch around these, and other, milestone events in the sporting calendar.

Changing the rules of the game

The demographics and viewing habits in sport are shifting. Therefore, how sport and celebrity weave together and are optimized is also shifting. Gen Z and Millennials drove Super Bowl viewership figures up this year by 23%. And female fans make up a larger (and still growing) portion of the NFL viewership; aside from the core fan base (46% male versus 21% female), the largest share of casual fans watching are female (35% female versus 30% male) and they are watching it on TV.

Although it’s widely known that people don’t gather around their TVs the way they used to, major sporting events are the notable exception. This year’s Super Bowl attracted 101.1 million TV viewers, according to the NFL, in addition to another 11.2 million streamers, all watching live. And FIFA president Gianni Infantino predicts that this year’s World Cup will be watched by 5 billion people to become the most watched in the tournament’s history, far surpassing the record 3.5 billion viewers who tuned into the 2018 edition.

It is important to adopt a multi-channel approach to engage with fans beyond game day, TV and traditional viewership still holds huge value in sport. In turn, celebrities and sports ambassadors become a huge part of this cultural conversation to build around these branded moments thanks to their relevance and the value they hold on communication channels and media environments so dominant to the world of sport. To put it even more plainly – we have enormous clutter in sports advertising and the celebrity tactic is one way of breaking through that clutter to reach your audience.

The who’s who of celebrity partnerships

According to Nielsen’s 2022 Global Sports Marketing Report, brand sponsorships in sporting events are the second most trusted advertising channel (81%), second only to recommendations from people they know (89%). By combining the best of both – sports and celebrity – there’s an even bigger opportunity for brands to make an impact and score big with consumers, by borrowing brand equity from sports and sporting events.

For example, Jamie Foxx for BetMGM with a new campaign launching around the NFL kick off; Jon Hamm playing Santa Claus in Fox Sports’ FIFA World Cup promos (and capitalizing on the fact that it’s the first time the tournament is taking place during the holiday season); or Tom Brady and Morgan Freeman debuting a new Under Armour ad telling future athletes to be themselves instead of ‘the next Tom Brady’.

Leveraging this brand equity around sports has commercial benefits for brands, too. For example, if it was a current Olympian within 100 days of the Olympics or a current football player at the World Cup, there are certain blackout periods for both branded media interviews and social posts in the run up to an event. Activations prior to and after the event means that brands get the elevation of having a well-known person involved in a sporting event also promoting or being involved in an activation in the run up to that event.

The celebrity fandom

Celebrities have the star power to help brands scale beyond the moment through storytelling – but it requires cultural awareness and cadence of planning that is very strategic and considered, to have that insight to cast someone who is going to drop at just the right time with the right amount of heat.

Some of the recent promotions from Nike after Serena Williams announced her retirement in an op-ed for Vogue, highlight how a long-term, more traditional partnership can be leveraged at the right time, while promoting a powerful message of inclusion.

The key is that there’s got to be synergy and cultural cache between brand and celebrity talent and that requires clever insight to tap into the human stories and emotional connections that will best resonate with consumers in the moment. There are celebrities who we know are fans themselves; they may not actually care about a product that they are promoting over here in this other ad, but we know they deeply care about sport and therefore the partnership has the authentic foundation that consumers are looking for.

Just look at some of the diehard celebrity football fans like Paul Rudd and Snoop Dogg, who are drawing in their network of (largely male) fans who support their passions and interests. On the other side, you’ve got diehard tennis fans in Queen Latifa and Oprah, who have the power to speak to the growing female audiences in sports.

And then there’s the story of Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney. They love sport so much that they bought Wrexham AFC in 2020, instantly elevating a small Welsh football club to a global stage. By utilizing this connection and tapping into their network of millions of fans, they’ve put Wrexham AFC on the map via regular engagements across social media and now a TV series documentary giving exclusive access into their journey. A similar thing happened with Netflix’s ‘Formula 1: Drive to Survive’ which reinvigorated the F1 brand to a new audience.

Playing the long game

With changing demographics and mixed audiences engaging with sport around the world, there are very few events, sport or otherwise, that bring them all together in one place. The Super Bowl is one of them. Brands shouldn’t overlook exploring the role that different talent can play in tapping into hard-to-reach audiences and affecting change across different groups who are making and influencing household purchasing decisions.

Super Bowl is a family moment, it brings communities together; let’s get out the box with our thinking when it comes to talent to really speak to the wider audiences and create something unexpected. Working with strategic planning partners to consider your celebrity activations will not only layer the data and science but also provide cultural insights that will give you that extra sizzle and creativity.

As moment marketing continues to gather steam, it’s important to build successfully around the moment – but to create long term value and impact for your brands, think beyond the full-time whistle. Adopting an always-on approach to partnering with celebrity partners who match your brand values, passions and interests, can have additional benefits of ensuring top-of-mind awareness and brand recall.

Celebrity partnerships won’t be the right tactic for every brand out there. The answer is not to put a celebrity into an ad just for the sake of it. In a cluttered sporting event like the Super Bowl or the World Cup, brands must first understand the strategic reason for a celebrity partnership. Understand what that celebrity is doing for you in that role and the audiences they are bringing with them and work with partners who can provide those unique insights.

Tags

celebrity
sport marketing
campaign activation