Brand Connection

Kevin Roberts investigates why and how brands are attracted to French sports properties.

When french gas company GDF Suez decided to rebrand for a future as a new-style energy company focusing on efficiency, the environment and transition to new resources, it chose to roll-out its transformation at this year’s French Open Tennis Championship at Roland Garros.

While the move was supported by multiplatform media advertising and communications activity, the fact that the company selected one of France’s iconic national sports events as the stage to publicly announce the launch is indicative of the growing strength and appeal of sport to French marketers.

According to Lucien Boyer, CEO of Havas Sport and Entertainment, it also underscores the increasing sophistication of a sector where the walls between disciplines and agency functions are being torn down to create and deliver truly coordinated and synchronised activation programmes to maximise return on sponsorship investment.

“This is an area where I feel France may be more advanced than some other territories,” Boyer told SportBusiness International.

“In France, a change started when it hosted the Fifa World Cup in 1998, as domestic brands became more aware of the critical need to effectively align activation with overall brand strategy. Working around big events has encouraged brands to align all of their activities and to experience how synergies can be achieved.

“We have been proactive in this movement and now, in France, it is entwined in our thinking. There is almost no sponsorship strategy that is not developed alongside communications, advertising and content creation.”

A change started when France hosted the Fifa World Cup in 1998

The approach has also had an impact on the structure of agencies themselves agencies working in “one big team” rather than split between different companies, according to Boyer.

“Integration within agencies is more developed and the people within them share a common vision, together and with their clients,” he added.

The principle of integration is not confined to the way that agencies operate. It extends  across the whole spectrum of sponsorship and is, to an extent, blurring what had been traditional lines between sports marketing and other forms of marketing.

“We understand that the goal is engagement with the audience and recognise that, while  sports is a great medium, consumers also  value music and entertainment,” said Boyer. 

“By bringing all three industries together, it is possible to create greater engagement, more joint-up strategies and different propositions to attract the same audience.

“A lot of action for French brands around 2007 Rugby World Cup and the Uefa Euro 2016 will be built around where pop culture and sports activation connect.”

Value for Money

The sports sector in France has undergone significant change in the last decade or so, not least with the massive Qatari investment in Ligue 1’s Paris Saint-Germain raising the  profile of the whole top-tier football league. The country’s domestic rugby competitions have also benefitted from new levels of investment, which has seen its leading clubs constantly winning or challenging for European honours.

Add this to annual international events like Roland Garros and the Tour de France, which help define French sport in the eyes of the world, and there have seldom been more opportunities for brands to effectively communicate around French sports properties. 

And while media and sponsorship rights fees have inevitably increased, Boyer insists that sports properties are still worthy of investment. “Sure fees have increased, but the entire value proposition has improved. It is not a question of paying more for the same thing,” he said.

“Rights-holders have worked hard to adapt to the needs of sponsors, because they too understand that they are now in the business of selling engagement and not eyeballs. As a result sponsors are willing to pay more for better access to content and stories and, as there is so much more in the transaction than ever before, the value has grown.

“Media investment in sport is always a driver, and the innovation of companies like Canal Plus across different platforms is opening up new ways for fans to consume sport and that creates opportunities for sports marketers.

Strong media brands are playing a role shaping the future of sports marketing.”

Boyer believes that the country’s calendar of annual national and international events, coupled to mega events such as the Euros and the recently announced Paris 2024 Olympic Games bid will all continued to galvanise sports marketing in the country.

“Big events provide a big opportunity. Brands want to be part of something that brings people together. Everybody is looking to do something big, and big events are naturally higher up the agendas of major corporations who want to be part of them,” he said.

International Appeal

The roster of global sports events with an unmistakably French identity has, naturally, created an international platform for French brands and Boyer points to French automobile manufacturer Peugeot’s work in China as an example of creativity and good practice.

Using 10-time tennis grand slam winner Novak Djokovic as an ambassador, Peugeot leverages its partnership with Roland Garros with initiatives including a scheme to recruit ball-boys from China and its ‘Road To Roland Garros’ interview programme, which is now in its seventh year. 

In the show the world’s top tennis stars are interviewed sitting in a Peugeot car, the official  vehicle of the tournament. In keeping with the move towards connected technology in the auto sector, in the most recent series the voice of the car itself asked the questions. 

However, French events are not purely the preserve of French sponsor brands. Earlier this year, Repucom executive president Mike Wragg spoke about the growing appeal of the Tour de France in global markets and predicated that it could well begin to attract significant interest in markets such as the United Arab Emirates and other Middle Eastern markets. That’s good news for a sport and an event whose image has been through the wringer in the past decade or so, but the indications are that its global appeal is rising.

This year French businesses retailer Carrefour, optician Krys, water brand Vittel, car manufacturer Skoda and financial services company LCL, joined the highest sponsorship tier for the first time, while international sponsors such as South African IT firm Dimension Data also joined the roster.

“Brands need to engage to communicate and understand that they need to be able to create content if they are to engage with millennials,” said Boyer. “In that regard, sport has become more than something that is just tactical. It is more than a nice-to-have. It is central to many strong modern brands.

To continue reading the International Focus on France, please click the links below:

1. French Revolution: SportBusiness International looks at the major sports events on the horizon for France, as well as its battlefield television broadcast industry.

2. Saints and Sinners: Bastien Drut, French economist and consultant for Soccernomics, gives his account of how football club Paris Saint-Germain is pioneering the domestic game

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