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Opinion | Don’t shoot the messenger

In the continuing search for sports to make the Olympic schedule more relevant to modern life, perhaps the IOC should consider a new event: Shooting the Messenger.

It is currently enjoying a boom in popularity worldwide, particularly in the US where the country’s new leadership practices it daily. Like many Olympic sports, it is rooted deep in the history of ancient cultures where delivering news to, for example, a king or general, was inherently risky given their penchant for despatching bearers of bad tidings to the hereafter for their troubles.

Its current resurgence – albeit in a rather more palatable 21st-century form in which most but not all participating nations frown on actual death – is most evident amid the pantomime of US presidential press briefings which appear to be set up to optimise opportunities to degrade and humiliate out-of-favour media organisations that have borne him bad news or challenged his version of events.

While these knockabout sessions with the leader of the free world may have a bizarre comic appeal, they also highlight the ways in which new media are prodding at the old order and challenging established ways of thinking, acting and reacting to events, opportunities and offers. And that, in turn, impacts on the entire advertising and marketing eco-system with inevitable opportunities and/or consequences for sports and the sports business.

If you believe America’s commander-in-chief, huge swathes of the domestic and overseas media are ‘dishonest’ and have ‘failed’, so it makes sense for him to communicate with an expectant world directly through Twitter rather than expose his thoughts to the filter of reporting and analysis which his predecessors had to endure.

Avoiding that sort of scrutiny naturally makes it easier to promulgate the one genuine innovation of the early days of the Trump Presidency – the ‘alternative fact’. At the same time as established media brands are under attack from High Office, digital media has also come under fire from advertisers who have found their messages randomly served up to audiences on the websites of entirely inappropriate organisations including Jihadist groups and far-right political organisations. That’s not only a damaging association for brands in question, but is also a waste of time and money.

The point is that we live in a time when all of the certainties that have traditionally governed the relationship between the media, audiences and advertisers are being challenged in new ways. This raises questions about the ways that brands will choose to communicate in the years ahead. If the well of public opinion is poisoned against traditional media brands – whether on TV, in print, or online – they become less effective messengers.

The idea that brands should simply switch to owned media to go directly to the public is not new and creating effective branded content has become the new Holy Grail over the last decade or so. But according to professor Douglas Holt, writing in the Harvard Business Review, branded content on commercial websites and social media channels has consistently failed to get real traction. There are, he says, only three brands among the top 500 YouTube channels measured by numbers of subscribers. McDonald’s, a massive sports sponsor, for example, is ranked around 90,000th, while the gaming Vlogger PewDiePie sits at the top of the pile with 53 million.

So it looks like the public don’t necessarily warm to the notion of brands simply becoming media organisations in their own right. Maybe that’s down to years of conditioning, or maybe it is just that no matter how good your burgers are, you’ll never be the first place that people turn to for entertainment and inspiration, however slick and well presented the content may be. And that tends to reinforce the importance of the continuing role in marketing of credible, trusted third parties which themselves have a pre-existing relationship with the audiences that brands want to reach – all of which points to sport having a major opportunity to build its relevance and importance in brand marketing, right now and for years to come.

But for marketers to use that opportunity to optimum effect, Holt suggests they need to understand another key way in which changes in media have altered the marketing environment. He argues that social media has led to a cultural shift, empowering what he dubs ‘crowd culture’ in which new agendas are set, trends established and relationships built by groups of otherwise disparate people united by social media.

And that’s something that media-bashing politicos worldwide appear to have got to grips with. For brands, that means developing different strategies based not simply on delivering a series of pre-defined messages, but listening to the crowd, understanding its conversations and dynamics, and adding value accordingly.

At a time when media are in a state of flux and old certainties are being questioned, sport’s proven value as a vehicle for brands should be significantly enhanced. Its competitions, teams and athletes have an allure that remains compelling so long as the sports product itself remains credible. With new and effective ways of delivering content direct to a global audience, sports provide a canvas for creative marketers to go beyond standard sponsorship fare and develop fresh new ideas which deliver deeper and more effective engagement, because they are based on a more comprehensive understanding of the audience. Sport is an effective messenger that isn’t going to be shot any time soon.

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