SportBusiness International

Analysis and insight for the global sports business

The Art of Activation

The Art of Activation

By: Kevin Roberts

1 Mar 2015
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Through new technologies, the ever-growing use of social media and a greater understanding of the sports fan, brands have been able to achieve significant success when activating partnerships with sport’s leading teams, leagues and tournaments. Kevin Roberts spoke to experts in achieving cut-through about how best to approach sponsorship activation, picking out cases of best practice from the last 12 months.

As the technology-fuelled evolution of sports marketing continues apace, sponsorship is moving decisively away from its primitive, logo-daubed cave to walk upright into the sunlit uplands of a modern era where it is positioned at the centre of the brand-building and marketing universe.

Have you heard a similar statement to that before? Probably. In fact, ever since those old-time tobacco and booze executives rubbed two VIP tickets together and sparked a fire that has swept through sport, we’ve been hearing how sponsorship has become more focused, results-driven, effective and measurable.

But for many years the reality was rather different and, by and large, sponsorship remained stuck in a time-warp where boards, badges, tickets and hospitality were more or less the only assets, and an on-pack tie-in was about as far as creativity went.

However, in much the same way that the lives of humans has changed more in the last century than in the millions of years that preceded it, sports sponsorship appears to have gone into evolutionary overdrive with fresh-thinking, new techniques and a deeper understanding of the audience coming to the fore.

It is harder to prove that fans will go out and buy the product. Making this link is something sponsorship has to work harder at

As Simon Tracey, executive director of client services at sports marketing agency giant Wasserman, says “there is a lot more art and science about it now”.

“There’s no dispute that engagement is achieved [through sport sponsorship], but it is harder to prove that fans will go out and buy the product. Making this link is something sponsorship has to work harder at,” Tracey adds.

“We have moved on significantly from logos around a pitch, and today sponsorship draws on many different Wasserman we have all sorts of specialists ranging from strategists to software developers.”

Today, effective sponsorship is about getting the fundamentals of targeting, property selection and acquisition right, but then also creating a layer of activation that engages its target audience in new and more compelling ways, and taking the sponsor to the places where consumers live their emotional lives.

The game-changer, of course, has been technology. Our constantly-connected digital universe has created a new canvas for brand marketers to work on, enabling their imaginations to go wild and allowing them every opportunity to create campaigns that really do allow brands to engage with fans through their passions.

It is this confluence of creativity and technology that is shaping sponsorship activation today, because it is here that the most memorable and effective activations are developed and instigated. But while radical new activations based on great ideas that spark global conversations on social media are the dish of the day, we haven’t suddenly reached the end of a journey; new technologies and fresh-thinking bring their own uncertainties and issues to be dealt with.

Last year’s FIFA World Cup in Brazil was widely acclaimed as a triumph for adidas, whose anthropomorphic approach to its official tournament football made the Brazuca a social media ‘spokes-ball’ for the brand, and a global icon.

It was by almost every measure a massive success, and a significant achievement by adidas and its agencies. But at a conference in London in December, a senior figure from the company was unable to say how much real difference the Brazuca campaign made to the business, and how much it would have suffered without it.

Addressing, or at least contextualising, that issue will be important to the future of sponsorship – a future that some believe will see the word itself dropped from the sports marketing vocabulary once and for all.

Core Narrative

New-style sponsorship activation demands input from a wider range of talents than ever before. As our experts point out across this feature, the process starts with the contract and goes on to involve strategists, creative teams, software specialists, technologists, production teams…the list goes on.

That means sponsorship is naturally moving to the centre of the marketing process because so often it provides the core of the narrative that is driving campaigns. Looking at the best of sponsorship activations in the last 12 months, it becomes clear just how far the sector has come in recent years. But, as they say, everything has to start somewhere, and this journey still has a long way to run.

Lucien Boyer, president and CEO of the Havas group’s brand engagement network Havas Sports & Entertainment, identifies a fundamental shift towards “co-creation of value” among the forces driving the sponsorship sector.

It’s a shift, he says, that challenges sponsors, brands – and their agencies – to think about engagement in new ways, and to develop creative and immersive activations in ways that benefit both the sponsors and the rights-owner.

The development has gone beyond the realms of theory and, according to Boyer, is having a real impact on fee negotiations and contracted levels.

“It’s simple. If you can show you can generate value for the rights-owner through your activation, you will pay less than a brand that treats sponsorship in the historic way and uses it simply as a way of putting up a logo,” he told SportBusiness International.

“Sponsorship continues to change. Today it is all about taking a fan-centric approach to creating engagement, and that means understanding that all fans are different and that engagement needs to be personalised. Of course, the real breakthrough is understanding how to use technology to achieve those goals on behalf of clients.

“Activation today needs to empower people to interact and enable them to fulfil the experiences they crave. The key is to produce content that is accessible anywhere and at any time, not just during an event itself.

“Through social media, that content can engage a whole community because, after all, social media is now mass media and as powerful as broadcast has been before.

“Sport has become a social currency, and if a sponsor’s activation is engaging enough, it will lead to an audience that really becomes involved and doesn’t just read the story. That requires content that is relevant, not random, and creative enough to hook people into participation.”

Logics of Engagement
Havas’ own approach has been shaped in part by the outcome of a research project, carried out with the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Innovation Lab, that identified fans through a series of eight ‘Logics of Engagement’.

The results of the study provide a framework for assessing individual or groups of fans. For example, the research showed that Chinese fans were passionate but could also be strongly engaged through the logic of ‘mastery’, as they have a desire to learn everything there is to know about a sport or individual – from tactics to athletes’ back stories.

From taking such an approach, says Boyer, it is possible to shape activations that segments fans and audiences and enables them to be targeted as individuals, not simply through their passion, but the nuances of their passion.

“This understanding allows you to hook people in around an event and keep them in a permanent relationship, not simply a one-off,” he adds. “It also highlights the need to create really relevant content and then to keep it relevant. It is about how to keep relationships with the fan community, because the fan journey is also the consumer journey.

“Technology gives us the chance to enhance the experience of fans both inside and outside stadia. Developments like the more sophisticated use of second screens give extra content and add a fresh dimension without harming the interests of broadcasters.”

On the Front Row
Boyer highlights Manchester United’s ‘Front Row’ initiative with social media platform Google+ as an example of a creative use of technology that created value for both parties.

The initiative used Google+ Hangouts technology – its instant messaging and video chat platform – to bring fans from countries around the world together to watch a United home game. Selected fans sharing the excitement at Old Trafford live from their homes were given the opportunity to appear on the LED hoarding around the pitch.

Boyer also identifies mobile phone operator Samsung’s ‘Best of Belgian Football’ campaign as a standout example of activation. The app carries a mass of information about the country’s football teams and players ranging from top-level professionals to kids teams, rooting it firmly at the heart of the player and fan community and delivering invaluable content on-demand.

“There is simply no doubt that sponsorship has entered a new era and will increasingly be at the very centre of consumer strategies,” Boyer adds. “We are serving a new generation that is happy to invite brands into their lives so long as the offering is right.

“I am not sure we will use the word sponsorship for much longer. It remains useful today because it describes a particular ecosystem, but that is changing.”

That change is reflected in the way Boyer’s company operates. Today, he says, it is organised around the concept of a village in which the talents and skillsets of different business units sit alongside and operate collaboratively with their neighbours.

“Sport and entertainment sit at the centre of the village as they are the source of the content, and we are able to call in the skills of creative and production teams, planners, statisticians and others to make things happen,” he adds.

Event Experience
Developments in sponsorship activation around events are being driven by the shared interests of rights-owners and commercial partners to improve fans’ experience – in the face of competition of time and discretionary spend from ever-improving TV coverage, according to Wasserman’s Tracey.

“If fans have an amazing experience pre-match and then during the game, at half-time, it will generate loyalty and, given the unpredictability of sport, a great event experience can mitigate against the disappointment of a poor performance,” he told SportBusiness International.

Tracey points to the NFL Tailgate Party during the International Series games at London’s Wembley Stadium as an example of how Wasserman has approached this.

“It works because the NFL provides the infrastructure for the Tailgate and then encourages sponsors to use the opportunity to provide the branded fan experiences,” he adds. “The result is a very disparate range of activations, all of which benefit the NFL brand, the event, as well as the sponsors.

“The changes we are seeing in the sports sponsorship sector are both brand and consumer led. For example, when the ATP (Association of Tennis Professionals) decided to take its season-ending World Tour Finals to London, it wanted to be clearly differentiated from the city’s other major tennis event, Wimbledon.

“The result was an experience in which the lighting, the LED boards and the sound were used to create a unique environment that identified the event, the ATP and Barclays as the title sponsor, and made the event really exciting.



“Where the changes have been consumer-led it has largely been through the desire of fans, at an event, to talk to and share their experience with friends and family using their phones and social media.

“Rights-holders and brands are on that now and are looking at more and more ways of creating effective engagement.”

Sporting Competition
Tracey believes that sports rights-owners need to stay alive to the need to work in partnership with sponsors to encourage and even create activation opportunities, particularly because there are alternatives open for brands to explore and exploit.

“Even now, sponsors face a lot of restrictions from rights-holders and are often asked to pay more and more to acquire the extra assets they need to make a sponsorship work,” he adds.

“We have already seen the likes of Vodafone, which was a major sponsor of football as well as Formula One, pull out and go on to create its own platform – in this case Vodafone Firsts [a social media-led campaign that shows people doing remarkable things for the first time, inspired and enabled by Vodafone’s technology and connectivity].”

In the case of Vodafone, the decision to walk away from its major sports sponsorships was driven by a desire to be the master of its own global brand engagement strategy. In the words of the company’s launch statement, Vodafone Firsts “marked the company’s evolution from a traditional ‘badging’ global sponsorship approach to a much deeper and direct interaction with more than 400 million customers worldwide”.

While it is clear that a strategy that works for Vodafone may not be the answer for all or any other brands, its move does make the scale of the challenge facing sport clear. And Tracey, like his colleagues at other agencies, sees the ability to leverage the passion of fans through creative exploitation of sponsorship rights as the key to success.

“Digital and social media are key tools, of course, but actually doing things differently in that space is difficult. However, when you get things right, it can be very powerful,” he says, adding that adidas’ 2014 FIFA World Cup activation around the Brazuca ball was an example of inspiration and digital media combining to set new standards.

By giving the Brazuca a human persona – and a Twitter account that had attracted 3.4 million followers by the end of the tournament – many fans saw the tournament not just on TV but through the eyes of this formerly inanimate object. Because Brazuca was always at the heart of the action, and always had something incisive or funny to say, it quickly became the voice of the adidas brand.

Great ideas are those that really have legs. They must work across longer periods of time and across every channel

Great Ideas
According to Steve Martin, CEO of sponsorship agency M&C Saatchi Sport & Entertainment, the key change to the sponsorship sector has been the enhanced value placed on great ideas.

“We have always been known as a creative agency; ideas are what we trade in and our challenge is continually proving that creativity,” he told SportBusiness International.

“There has been a step change, and that means ideas have to be better than good. They have to be legendary, and be capable of activation across all channels. For us it’s not about having to force ideas to work. We want ideas to be beautifully simple and work naturally as we add layers of technology to them.

“Of course, sponsorship has changed since its earliest days, and though the industry makes a thing about it not being about the whim of a chairman anymore, the reality is that still happens. It’s not always a bad thing having the sort of buy-in and support from the very top which that implies.

“But the reality is that the business has always been about ideas – that’s what the client wants. What has changed is the media landscape, which now has digital and social at its heart and that now has to be at the heart of brand communications.

“Digital and social allow you to engage with and extend your audience and get brands and their ideas talked about. It’s something you can’t switch off – you have to be in constant conversation with the audience.

“Great ideas are those that really have legs. They must work across longer periods of time and across every channel.”

This Girl Can
Martin is clear that technology facilitates, rather than drives, activation, and that creativity and fresh-thinking is the most important factor in a successful programme.

Beyond M&C Saatchi’s own client work, Martin points to Sport England’s ‘This Girl Can’ campaign as an example of what can be achieved when technology and a great idea come together.

The campaign, developed by the subsidiary of the UK government that encourages people to take up sport alongside an array of partner organisations, is designed to get women involved in physical activity by challenging some of the key issues, including body image embarrassment and the time constraints of motherhood. A series of video vignettes have triggered conversation across social media channels and the campaign’s website acts as a rallying point for information and materials that support the central ideas.

Having launched in January this year, Sport England says more than 13 million people have watched the pivotal video online while This Girl Can had more than 42,000 followers on Twitter at the beginning of last month.

It’s not difficult to see why the campaign is close to the top of Martin’s love-it list. His own company talks of the power of the ‘brutally simple’ ideas and a single simple – not to say confrontational – idea is at the heart of This Girl Can.

It’s also at the heart of an award-winning M&C Saatchi project for telecoms operator O2, main sponsors of the England national rugby union team, called ‘Wear the Rose’.

People involved in sports sponsorship often talk about creating money-can’t-buy experiences that allow brands to connect to their audiences by taking them to the heart of the action – and we’ve seen it many times before, from adding a second seat to a Formula One car to playing golf with superstars.

That was the big idea for Wear the Rose, says Martin: get fans to experience something so desirable that not only money couldn’t buy it, for most it would be physically impossible. But by using virtual reality headset Oculus Rift, Wear the Rose allowed fans to step into the boots of England players.

“The Holy Grail is to get the audience to feel what it is like to actually play in an event, or with top players, but in rugby that really has never been possible. No ordinary person could play with internationals – they’d die,” he says.

“It’s about allowing the brand to facilitate an absolutely unique experience, a chance for fans to put themselves in the boots of their heroes. That’s where the dynamite is and it is all about recognising and harnessing the power of technology to that understanding of the experiences that will thrill fans.

“The sponsorship industry isn’t new anymore and it is getting bigger because the penny has dropped for many brands – they realise they don’t have to go looking for audiences when they can communicate and have conversations with those audiences through their passions.” 

Read about best practice in Formula One sponsorship activation

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