For brands looking for a tool that has both mass and niche appeal, that speaks to an engaged and open-minded audience, and has the ability to crossover into the worlds of entertainment and gaming, look no further than sport.
So said James Dobbs, managing director of Story10 and SNTV, at this year’s PR360 conference in Brighton.
Describing the benefits of sport to communications teams, he highlighted six core themes.
1. Connection: Sporting events have the ability to reach a wide audience, but also make that reach meaningful. “It’s never been easier to reach an audience, but with sheer volume it’s harder to generate connection and trust,” says Dobbs. “A lot of the time, consumers are relatively sceptical when they approach products. In sports, they don’t have that mindset – they’re nervous, scared, optimistic, excited... They’re emotional, and more receptive and open to messaging and connections.”
2. Scale: “It’s such a huge pie, it can serve a brand however it needs to,” Dobbs says. While this can mean billions of engagements generated by a World Cup final, it doesn’t have to. “Within sport there are hundreds of teams, and each comes with its own diverse audience.”
He flagged Under Armour as a creative example of using sport as a marketing device. While the brand doesn’t sponsor any premium events for wide brand awareness, it has cleverly constructed a roster of ambassadors, each selected to appear within a region or specific sport that represents a key consumer space.
3. Culture: Sport doesn’t just mean engaging with sports fans, but instead can be an effective gateway into lifestyle, culture and entertainment spaces and reaching an even wider demographic. Dobbs pointed to EA’s relationship with FIFA, which has crossed over into the gaming and music world via video games and Spotify playlists.
The purchase of Wrexham football club by Hollywood actor Ryan Reynolds is another example of how sport can bring human stories to the fore. “What mattered was the story it allowed them to tell, the little club that could,” Dobbs says. “We all invest in that human story.”
4. Potential for highly tailored campaigns: While sport is most often associated with scale, it’s also possible to use it strategically. Dobbs pointed to the sponsorship of the Golf European Tour by logistics firm DP World. “The CEOs of all the major companies they might pitch to either play golf, or are engaged with it.” When it came to pitching, that connection might give the company the edge.
5. Trust: Dobbs flagged how athletes often have even bigger followings than the sports associations themselves, with a more diverse audience. As a result, any advocacy they engage in can generate more engagement than brand posts. If brands do their homework and find people with shared values and with whom they share common ground, the good feeling can often reflect well on them.
Dobbs highlighted Marcus Rashford’s activism around school meals, which Nike quietly supported. He also emphasised Nike’s support of Colin Kaepernick, who was one of a group of American football players who took the knee in 2016 during the playing of the national anthem to call attention to issues of racial inequality in the US. There was huge backlash and pressure on his sponsors to drop him, which Nike resisted. “Nike could have kept their head down, but they doubled down, and launched a global campaign saying they were fully behind him. Trust and sentiment is now up, but at the time it was a commercial risk. They risked alienating a large part of their consumer base.” He added, however, that Nike constantly polled their key consumer base throughout that period. “Trust is brilliant but informed trust is better.”
6. Opportunity: Sport might feel like a saturated market, but Dobbs highlighted areas of change and growth. First is women’s sport. “The growth is well documented but when you take a step back and look at the scale of opportunity, they’re early in the growth cycle.”
Second is changing forms of content, with opportunities to explore stories that centre around human stories that are about sport but away from the field of action. He pointed to Netflix’s Drive to Survive series about Formula One drivers. “Everyone loves a compelling human story – and sport has human narrative in abundance.”