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Handle with flair: VAR and sponsorship

Tim Crow reflects on the use of VAR in Russia 2018 and why sponsors will be considering it in future tournaments.

Vincent Van Doornick/Isosport/MB Media/Getty Images

Ask the chief marketing officer of any sponsor with a campaign that’s about to go live what he or she really wants from it, and you will get two answers.

One, naturally, is business impact and value – enhanced brand image, increased sales and marketshare, and so on.

The other is ‘talkability’, that rare and wonderful moment when a campaign, in a good way, goes viral: when consumers love it so much that they feel compelled to say so, and share it, with anyone and everyone. The great sponsorships all provoke that reaction at scale.

One such example is Nike’s immortal ‘Airport’ campaign from before the 1998 World Cup in France. This was the moment when Nike stopped worrying about adidas’s football heritage, by realising that for their target audience of football-mad teens, Nike had also been around ‘forever’ (i.e. all their lives), and that what they loved and wanted was exhilarating football. And who better to evoke that than Brazil?

Another instance is Procter and Gamble’s ground-breaking ‘Proud Sponsor of Moms’ Olympic sponsorship, first released in the build-up to the London 2012 Games. This defied convention by focusing on the female half of the global Olympic audience that other sponsors had previously overlooked, winning hearts and minds by telling stories around the understanding that behind every Olympian – and aspiring Olympian – there’s a Mom.

In that context, notice something else about the two campaigns, and just about every sponsorship: they didn’t come with built-in talkability. Yes, they came with an audience. And yes, they came with the usual bundle of sponsorship rights, but those don’t get you talkability. That has to be earned. And you can only earn it with an insight that evokes a powerful, emotional reaction in consumers and also has an authentic and meaningful link to your brand. Nike and P&G both did that. So did Specsavers with its sponsorship of referees, of which, more shortly.

But these are all the exceptions that prove the rule: that earning talkability at scale is very, very hard. But just occasionally, it isn’t. Sometimes, along comes a sponsorship with guaranteed talkability.

The Fifa World Cup was, as always, full of big moments – incidents that got the world talking, debating and sharing, before, during and after the match. And as always in the social era, whenever these moments happened, thousands of brands tried, but mostly failed, to cash in on their virality.

But there was one big, and unexpected winner: VAR. VAR became the talking point throughout the tournament, regularly playing a crucial role – including in the Final itself

Imagine if a brand had sponsored VAR during the World Cup and activated it well. They would have ruled.

Six months before the tournament, Fifa took VAR to market, but, unsurprisingly, couldn’t find a sponsor since it was an unknown quantity attracting a lot of fan and media criticism.

Add to that fears about Russia as a host, Fifa’s legacy image issues, a punchy sponsorship price tag (which now looks like a bargain) and the short lead time, and that’s a lot of risk. Which is why every prospective sponsor passed. But that won’t happen again. Russia 2018 proved that VAR is a game-changer for football and football sponsorship.

It’s not part of the sideshow like ad breaks. And it’s not low-voice media like kit branding or perimeter ads, it’s embedded in the game and has guaranteed talkability.

So Fifa will have no problem in finding VAR sponsorship for the 2019-2022 cycle, and neither will the club competitions, where VAR is rapidly becoming mainstream. As a result a new era in football sponsorship is dawning, driven by a new, and very different type of asset with huge potential.

So what can rights holders and their first wave of VAR sponsors do to maximise VAR’s potential? Three things in particular.

Embrace controversy. VAR will be forever controversial, because all the big decisions on the field in football are always controversial. Even when the officials get it absolutely right, one set of fans always feels wronged. So if you’re a brand that doesn’t want to embrace controversy, VAR sponsorship is not for you.

Dive deep, deep, deep into the world of fans: their mindset, their language, their passion. VAR sponsorship will make you central to their world, so if you don’t understand them, your sponsorship will at the very least backfire and at the worst fail. Handle with care.

This above all: take inspiration from Specsavers. Specsavers has created such an entertaining and authentic link to its sponsorship of referees that it is now overwhelmingly the dominant brand in fans’ minds in this space. To maximise the potential of VAR, every brand that sponsors it will need to create that link too. Handle with flair!

Tim Crow has been at the forefront of sports marketing for thirty years. Formerly CEO of Synergy, he now advises a range of companies at the intersection of sport, marketing, media and technology. Follow him @shaymantim.

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