David Blecken
Oct 17, 2016

Be fast, funny and prepared for crisis: the new world of sports sponsorship

There are increasingly more opportunities out there, but also more pitfalls.

When things go wrong, sponsor brands can expect as much scrutiny as athletes like Ryan Lochte.
When things go wrong, sponsor brands can expect as much scrutiny as athletes like Ryan Lochte.

As part of our series looking ahead to Tokyo 2020, we asked Sam Pearson, a director at CSM Sport & Entertainment in Tokyo, for observations and advice on navigating an increasingly complex environment.

How do Japanese brands typically approach sponsorship of sports properties?

  • They tend to see sport as a charity/CSR angle more than a genuine opportunity to drive sales.
  • They want the best genuinely global (scarce) assets and willing to pay a premium to get them. Several Japanese brands, such as Panasonic, Toyota and Sony, have been active in sponsorship globally for many years. Successful Japanese brands are global players and are partners at the highest level of the Olympics.
  • They are obliging, meaning they accept the sponsor benefits offered and follow the rights holders and wait for their advice on how to gain brand exposure.
  • Transfer of knowledge is lacking. Not all Tokyo partners sent representatives to Rio. This indicates there are questions internally around sports sponsorship adding value and driving business. Those that did send representatives gained an insight into what is possible at the Olympics.

What are some common mistakes sponsor brands still make?

  • Paying for sponsorship rights and thinking the job is done. Putting the Olympic rings at the end of a non-Olympics related ad is not enough. Likewise the importance of ongoing activation budgets and activities is undervalued.
  • Not managing the hospitality/ticketing allocations effectively to maximize the opportunities for internal comms, B2B and ongoing CRM.
  • Assuming sports media will be interested in any sport-related story/event promoted by a brand just because they’re an official sponsor. During the Olympics, sports media receive many invitations and pitches in addition to their regular schedule of “on-field” stories.

How would you advise them to change their approach, especially looking ahead to 2020?

  • Buying the sponsor rights is only the first step. Now sponsors need to uncover what the Olympics means to their brand and share that with the target audience. This has to be done in a meaningful way, across experiential, digital and traditional media.
  • Engage an experienced, specialist agency that understands the complexities of managing large-scale hospitality programmes. This is especially important when talking about the Olympics, whether it be for hospitality or sponsorship in general. There are big challenges due to rules around using athletes as ambassadors for example.
  • Ensure sponsor PR events stand out and are relevant to their intended audience. As a point of difference, Microsoft held their events on a Norwegian cruise liner docked on Rio’s shoreline.

What stood out for you in terms of general sponsor activity in Rio?

Targeting. Many brands seemed more sophisticated in knowing what they wanted to achieve and how. Objectives were more targeted and with agencies support many seemed to be using their budgets more effectively.

Speed. Athlete scandals such as Ryan Lochte’s will continue to occur. However, it increasingly seems that sponsors’ responses (both content and timing) are scrutinised as much as the original act. Brands must have a crisis management plan in place to respond.

Sponsor-friendliness. The IOC’s Rule 40 is gradually loosening. It’s a trend that means brands will increasingly be able to use Olympic athletes as ambassadors and that those athletes will receive more material rewards for their efforts and dedication.

Humour. The funny/human moments go viral more often than the best athletic performances, Topless Tongans, green pools and two Irish brothers proved as memorable as the athletic performances at Rio so I believe there’s an opportunity for sponsors to bring more humour to their Olympic campaigns, particularly when aiming at people who wouldn’t describe themselves as sports fans.

What major differences do you expect between Rio and Tokyo?

How the Games are consumed. Advertising on new digital channels will present opportunities for sponsors (both official and non-official) such as live streaming events via virtual reality headsets. Also, every fan (anywhere in the world) will have the ability to be a broadcaster/commentator. We can expect the Games to be less prescribed by host broadcasters and more curated according to viewers’ online behaviour.

New stars. Bolt and Phelps’ careers are finished so new Olympics personalities will emerge. Surfing, skateboarding, and speed climbing, specifically to attract a young audience, will be very attractive for certain brands. We can say for sure that there will be new channels of communication. A younger audience could be more receptive to messaging from non-official sponsors if delivered authentically,with humour, in real-time via their preferred channels.

More integrated Paralympics. The Paralympics will be a more integrated part of the Olympics experience. It’s an important testing-ground for technologies relevant to Japan’s ageing society so I expect all official sponsors to proudly showcase products with the potential to benefit the world.

Campaign Japan

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