Surekha Ragavan
Jun 26, 2019

Chinese brands waking up to the power of sports marketing

To leverage sports properties, it’s important for Chinese brands to think beyond the stoppage time of a match by considering the entire ecosystem of the sport they’re investing in.

L-R: Phil Boyle, SVP, Jack Morton Worldwide; Dephin Lim, MD, MediaCom Shanghai; Bill Yang, commercial leader, La Liga Greater China at Sports Focus yesterday in Shanghai
L-R: Phil Boyle, SVP, Jack Morton Worldwide; Dephin Lim, MD, MediaCom Shanghai; Bill Yang, commercial leader, La Liga Greater China at Sports Focus yesterday in Shanghai

In China, sports marketing doesn’t have as long a history as it does in the West. And only now are brands and industries in China getting access to opportunities both domestic and international. At Campaign’s Sport Focus forum in Shanghai Tuesday (June 25), Dephin Lim, managing director, MediaCom Shanghai, said that one of the key connectors for Chinese brands is the government.

For instance, President Xi Jinping has ambitious plans to build China as a global football powerhouse, and the Chinese Football Association released a 50-point, 35-year-plan to reach those goals. One such initiative is to design the city of Jiangshan in the Zhejiang province as a sporting hub, with facilities and infrastructure being developed to achieve that.

Internationally, we’re also seeing a big presence of Chinese brands at global events. Last year’s FIFA World Cup and this year’s Cricket World Cup showcased significant presence of Chinese brands, and just this Monday we saw the Olympics sign a key partnership with Chinese dairy brand Mengniu and Coca-Cola.

But partnering up with a huge global event is not as simple as signing a huge cheque. “For local Chinese brands to leverage international sports IP [intellectual property], the key challenge is understanding perceived value,” said Lim. “How do audiences perceive your brand? For example, Oppo sponsored the cricket world cup 2019 in England. But so what? Besides the huge reach, what else will you get in return? Marketers need to have a proper strategy.”

Lim recommends adopting the 4C approach: Community, celebrities, commerce, and connection. This ensures that the partnership allows brands to build an entire ecosystem around a sporting event rather than just a bunch of ads.

According to Bill Yang, La Liga commercial leader in Greater China, more global sports properties are realising that Chinese brands are increasingly active in sports marketing, so they are more ready to partner up with them. He added that international sporting events are keeping a close eye on Chinese brands not just because of the financial capacity of those brands, but also because global events increasingly seek to get closer to local Chinese markets.

In the case of La Liga, Yang and his team have invested heavily in social media and events, both of which work especially well in China. The latter, for instance, has materialised in the form of viewing parties and meet-and greets with football legends. "It’s not just about the 90 minutes of the match," Yang said. "We make it an all-day carnival. We organise mini-tournaments which will lets fans play ball with the legends. We also give our brand partners the freedom to activate at these events.”

He added that in China, the key for sports properties is to localise experiences as much as possible. “In China, we don’t just sell media rights," he said. "It’s far from enough. We work closely with our team here to develop more business, projects and investments in China. For example, in 2016, we opened the La Liga club, the first official La Liga fan club in the world. It’s not a traditional fan club. It’s more like a sports entertainment platform that will give a new lifestyle experience for our fans.”

The team also produced a local football TV drama that aired two months ago, opened a football training school for Spanish football coaching, and holds La Liga carnivals in various Chinese cities as an entry point for parents and kids to take an interest in the sport. This method of elevating the status of the sport from a grassroots level is key in developing an ecosystem around the brand, which is what international sporting events can leverage.

“With the improvement of football competitiveness, there will be more players, and they will eventually be able to play one day in La Liga," Yang added. "There’s only one Chinese player in the league, but you can already see the impact he has."

Overall, there’s nowhere to go but up for both inbound and outbound sports marketing in China. And this value is projected to extend beyond China’s two main sporting fanbases: football and basketball. Both Yang and Lim predict that more “niche” sports such as golf, cricket, and boxing will gain fans.

“No matter the sport, they always have their target users as long as they have the best teams and competition," Yang said. "The quality of competition is important. It’s about uncertainty and passion; people love the fight, the competition.

“Brands have to pay more and more cost to get traffic and attention, and this makes sports more valuable. There’s a lot of potential value to be discovered. It’s not just advertisements, it gives brands a full reach of touchpoints. With sports, they can access the fans and the consumers way beyond the stadiums.”

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