During the next few weeks, the semi-final matches in the UEFA Champions League will provide four nights of soccer for fans all over the world. To give an idea of the popularity of the competition, June’s final in Cardiff, Wales is expected to have an average live global TV audience of 200 million. According to Nielsen, Super Bowl LI gathered a measly 111.3 million viewers in comparison.
Now, imagine after the semi-final draw between Juventus FC and Monaco FC, you poll fans. Your survey has only one question: “Would you prefer the opportunity to buy a ticket for the Monaco-Juventus game as an event sponsorship or that our brand sponsor your team’s shirt next season?”
Of course the shirt sponsorship deal means better players and better results, but for the fans it’s a no-brainer. They would take the ticket and run. Added value for the customer is what modern marketing is all about, and that’s the basis of Virgin’s revolutionary sponsorship idea. They’re giving fans what they want, using their Southampton FC sponsorship to subsidize away ticket prices and arranging a convoy to take home fans to the club’s first Friday night game with Manchester United.
Image attribution: Nathan Shively
If we attend to the numbers, the old sponsorship model isn’t failing, but perception is off. Coca-Cola ranked second among the most effective brands at the Rio Olympics. However, Coke’s former marketing director Bobby Brittain told Marketing Week that “being a top sponsor for global events such as the Olympics no longer functions.” The formula has become so predictable that, in his words, “it must be the easiest job in the world to be the Pepsi marketing director.”
On the other hand, Virgin Media’s sponsorship model not only signals the way to the future, but it’s already helping the brand carve out a niche in a field dominated by their rivals Sky and BT.
Let’s see how the new model works, in five easy steps. But first, here’s what fans think:
Being fan-focused is what best defines Virgin Media’s model. Furthermore, as their initiatives aren’t exclusively for home or away fans, their event sponsorship campaign has the advantage of reaching a broader audience of Premier League supporters.
Despite their groundbreaking ideas, Virgin is not the only sponsor with a fan-focused strategy. You may know Serena Williams and Andy Murray won Wimbledon in 2016, but there was a third champ—Haagen-Dazs. Waggener Edstrom’s Brand Agility Index considered them the most effective sponsor during the tournament thanks to their fan engagement. The campaign “Lose Yourself” plays with Haagen-Dazs’ narrative around indulgence. Spectators packing Wimbledon’s stands posted images of themselves with an ice cream in hand, used the hashtag #loseyourself, and made themselves part of the conversation.
Nissan is yet another master of both the art of listening and the science of disruption. Their support for last season’s surprise winners of the English title, Leicester City FC, in their Champions League adventure is a declaration of purpose. They take sides with the newcomers and thus build up excitement among fans while challenging the status quo.
What can companies buy when exposure isn’t enough? Access is a good answer because most of the times it implies an added value for the public. Brands are starting to see sports teams and events more like partners that get them closer to what their audience wants and help them create better content. By subsidizing tickets and travel, Virgin is offering fans the most obvious kind of access (affordable tickets), but there are many efficient ways for brands to let their creative thinking flow.
For instance, entertainment company Konami’s agreement with the Spanish FC Barcelona gives the creators of the video game Pro Evolution Soccer 2017 exclusive entry rights to the stadium and allows them to work closely with some of the world’s most popular players, such as Lionel Messi, Luis Suárez, and Neymar. Nissan, for its part, taps into the popularity of brand ambassadors Thiago Silva, Andrés Iniesta, and Yaya Touré on social media and gives fans behind-the-scenes access with live YouTube 360-degree films.
Image attribution: David Straight
“Twenty’s Plenty” is a long-running campaign by the English Football Supporters’ Federation (FSF) designed to persuade clubs to cap away prices at £20 (approximately $25 ). Virgin Media has simply capitalized on that demand in partnership with the FSF, reimbursing the costs of tickets above £20.
While the strategy of buying ad space is wearing thin, the brand used an event built from the bottom up to establish a reputation for social responsibility and gain a well-deserved credibility among soccer fans.
“During the search for sponsorship, we saw various proposals with an emphasis on outtakes or digital shorts, which used to be an add-on,” Dean Leyland, the head of media at Sky Gaming, told Marketing Week. “There is growing interest in incremental digital activity in the way sponsorships are sold.”
The #FlipIt Challenge is another great example of highly shareable content, this time by the British furniture retailer DFS at the Rio Olympics. They knew people would be drinking while watching sports, so they decided to leverage that. Their audience is now sharing their brand and creating content for them.
Event sponsorship has changed in part because we can now count clicks and build messages based on a range of customer data. Efficiency depends ultimately on your capacity to keep tabs on your performance in order to do something more than buying over-expensive shirt space.
Today brands want to make it easy for potential customers to participate in the conversation. Buying exposure still works, and in fact Virgin Media is Southampton’s official shirt sponsor. But if you need those Juventus fans from your improvised poll to keep talking to you, you have to offer something fun, exciting, useful, or at least engaging in return (like posting photos of themselves having an ice cream at the Juventus-Monaco match!).
The ultimate test is to see what they’re talking about. Businesses can spend a lot to have fans talk just about their sport. Or they can spend smart, and have fans talk about them.
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