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Jared Melzer | The real power of sponsorships – driving social activism

Having led sponsorships for major B2C and B2B brands in the US, Jared Melzer shares his perspectives around sponsorships and Black Lives Matter

Jared Melzer

It goes without saying that 2020 has been an interesting year. My response to the question “How are you doing?” has gone from “great, excited about everything we have planned for the year” in January and February, to “I’m just trying to stay safe and healthy” in March through May, to “hoping for positive change” in June. But I know it’s going to take more than hope to see the positive change we so desperately need as a society and it is long overdue.

It’s somewhat ironic in that if it weren’t for the coronavirus, I’m not so sure we’d be where we are today – on the cusp of evolution with Black Lives Matter. People out of work, not many sporting events, bans on large community gatherings and people simply restless of living ‘groundhog day’ have caused many throughout the world to take to the streets, be the voice of change on social media, and a beacon of education.

It’s also interesting to see the dynamics shift on the role companies play around these issues. There was a time where people would look at their government leaders and politicians to institute reforms. Now, more than ever before, people are looking for companies to lead the change – wanting to know companies’ stance on important societal issues and rewarding companies that align with their values and are drivers of change.

It’s hard to stay silent or take a “no comment” approach when it’s now part of customers’ expectations. The focus is on more than just your products, it now needs to become part of your customer experience.

With the rise of social activism, it leads us to re-examine our roles and strategic decisions as sponsorship professionals. So what does this mean for sport and sports properties?

Ask for a seat at the table

Companies are stressing on making sure they “get it right”. Will the message be well received? Are we authentic in our approach? Are we living our values internally before we preach or act externally? Companies have been spending many hours, with many eyeballs, scrutinising every word of their social posts and statements around Black Lives Matter. For many companies, they’ll have their CMO, communications, email and social media teams involved. Most likely, they need final sign-off from the CEO.

But is the sponsorships team invited to the table? Who understands customers’ passions better than the sponsorships team? As we saw the last few weeks, Black Lives Matter is an intense passion like none other. Now’s the opportunity to prove that we’re more than professionals who only know about sports matches or music concerts. Our ability to understand how to operate at the intersection of culture, consumers and brands are second to none.

We know that we need to be more than just a logo on a jersey or signage, the same way we know that we need to be more than just a Black Lives Matter social post. Our ability to serve and enhance the fans’ experiences while achieving brand objectives can be paralleled with our abilities to enhance everyday life and help authentic and actionable social activism plans. If you’re not part of the conversation at your company, ask for that seat at the table.

Analyse your sponsorship investments

If companies are going to institute a social activism strategy, then we need to re-analyse how our sponsorship investments align. Do you funnel some of your budget to support foundations and organisations that serve the mission? This isn’t to say that we pull out of sports, music, arts and other entertainment investments. Many of these investments are major platforms that are helping to champion the movement. It doesn’t need to be an “either/or” scenario. Often times, the best outcomes are when it’s “together” – brands, sponsorship properties, consumers and social activism. The typical “win-win-win” now needs to be reconsidered to “win-win-win-win”.

Develop strong activation

As sponsorship professionals, we know activation is where the rubber hits the road. A strong social activism plan has four key components – awareness, education, support and action.

The action part enables people to engage and join the mission to make a positive difference. Action can come in many different forms. To name a few – signing a petition, attending a rally, making a donation, sharing a piece of content on social or nominating a deserving business or company.

Over the past few months, I’ve seen both brands and properties come together like never before. Conversations are more objective-centric, solutions-focused and creative in nature.

We’re finally moving beyond the standard “assets package” conversation. Black Lives Matter is a perfect opportunity for brands and properties to come together and jointly lead. Think about what aspects of the mission can be “ownable” for brands? How do you engage athletes of all races as ambassadors of the mission, leveraging both team and individual channels? How are we amplifying through our broadcast partners during in-game coverage and through ad spots? What will we do on-site once fans come back?

In the US, Nascar has already abolished fans flying the confederate flag at races. Nascar drivers joined together for an “I will listen and learn” video message on social and Bubba Wallace, the only Black driver in the series, raced in a Black Lives Matter-themed car. While this is certainly significant progress, there’s an opportunity for sponsors to engage and co-lead the mission.

For example, I think about the opportunity for a bank sponsor to hold contests for fans to nominate Black-owned small businesses for the chance to be featured on the bank sponsor’s race car at each track.

Beyond having a special paint scheme reflective of the small business, the owners would be able to host a select group of customers at the race, gain earned media, leverage the drivers for in-market appearances and the companies’ campaigns.

Nascar and the broadcast partners can support through at-track activations and features in the race TV coverage. People may be inclined or enticed to buy the product or service as a means of showing further support. For the bank, it becomes a champion of Black-owned small businesses (maybe even providing the business owners with some cash funds to propel their businesses) and generates new levels of support and loyalty, all while leading a mission of social activism.

My hope for much-needed change will only come with action. I urge you, my fellow sponsorship colleagues, to be part of the solution and lead the way for our companies. Let’s not make this a moment in time, a dwindling fad, a one-shot marketing campaign. The opportunity is right in front of us, right now. It will be the biggest, most important and memorable accomplishment of our careers.

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