World Athletics Championship and Sponsorship

The applause from the Bird’s Nest has barely died down, confirming the status of the World Athletics Championship as the third largest sporting event worldwide after the Olympics and the FIFA World Cup. Despite this, athletics is estimated to attract merely 1-2% of global sports sponsorship revenue this year – estimated by PwC at a whopping $45 billion[1]. Why this disparity?

An examination of the structure of athletics sheds some light on the challenges it faces. While interest in athletics focuses on the biennial World Athletics Championships and the quadrennial Olympic & Paralympic Games, sports like golf and tennis have at least four major tournaments per year. The appeal of global sport to sponsors arises from its exposure, and it is no surprise that sports which regularly feature in our calendars are the sports with high revenues from sponsorship.

For athletics, the problem is compounded by the distribution of elite athletes across a variety of events. When we tune into Wimbledon or the U.S. Open, we are guaranteed multiple clashes of the sport’s titans – but at the World Athletics Championships, the highest-profile athletes will rarely compete against each other. Usain Bolt and Mo Farah will never go head-to-head in the same way that Leo Messi and Bastian Schweinsteiger will in a cup final, and will consequently never draw in the same high level audience figures. With sponsors looking for partnerships that offer such large-scale, regular exposure, the disadvantage of athletics is clear.

Given the range of countries top athletes come from, athletics events ought to be able to attract more sponsors. But once again, structure leads to complications. The representation of each country by its national team leads to broadcast coverage focusing each country’s own athletes. The UK hears about the achievements of heptathlete Jessica Ennis-Hill, but she is comparatively unknown in other countries, where home-grown athletes take prominence. Only a few stand-out athletes (Usain Bolt, for example) have a truly global reach. The complexities of global presentation poses a threat to the coherence of the unitary message which sponsors generally wish to convey.

Sponsors who wish to associate themselves with Olympian qualities of ‘Faster, Higher, Stronger’ have perceived that it is more effective to achieve this with specific athletes, rather than with the event as a whole. The tactical choice to sponsor individuals rather than teams or events creates a system whereby the best athletes gain endorsement funding with which to enhance their already-glittering careers. Meanwhile, sponsorship is draining away from official governing bodies, and support for new athletes is no longer present. This cycle is indicative of the problems which athletics faces.

So what does all this mean for athletics? The recent news that Sainsbury’s has chosen to exercise a break clause in their sponsorship of British Athletics halfway through their contract and less than a year before Rio 2016 seems to illustrate the problem. For athletics to become more sustainable as a sport, steps must be taken to address the unique challenges which it faces.

Redmandarin’s David Powell talks to BBC World News about this topic…


[1] PwC Changing the Game; Outlook for the Global Sports Markets 2011–2015 

The Olympic Baby

We were a little surprised when we saw the IOC was planning on reforming its Rule 40.

Rule 40 currently imposes commercial purdah on Olympians for nearly a month around the Games, preventing any use of name or likeness in association with non-Games partners. Penalties for contravention include disqualification and stripping of medals (although the reality is closer to a rapped knuckle for the superstar breaches that are the legends of ambush: Johnson, Christie, Phelps)

There’s a popular case for change. Dozens of athletes launched a Twitter campaign – #WeDemandChange2012 – during the London Games, to urge an end to the rule. Rule 40 limits the commercial potential of athletes at the greatest moments in their season or even their careers. Only the very top athletes, sponsored by official Games partners, would make real money in Olympic years.

But a change is still surprising. Not only because the IOC is a conservative beast…but because this reform is potentially … radical.

The premise is to allow pre-existing marketing campaigns based on Olympians to continue, providing they are ‘generic’ ie non Olympic. But as we saw clearly in the controversies about Scotiabank’s 2010 and Honda’s 2012 campaigns, it can be extremely difficult to differentiate between ‘generic’ and Olympic marketing. The strict IP of the IOC and Games are well-protected: the marques and designations. But … mood, colours, words even.: Champion, heroic, pride… The Olympic brand is way too big to be reduced to a few protected terms.

So it’s difficult to see how ambush marketing would not be encouraged by this move. And while simple cease and desist letters are effective in blocking flagrant breaches of Olympic legislation, rights protection teams would struggle to cope with multiple negotiations of the protracted sort required by the more subtle approach of a Honda or Scotiabank.

Although LOCOG successfully restricted the ability of non Partners to use outdoor or field marketing in ambush, Games-time clutter across multiple channels is also a real risk, with the threat of Atlanta-style backlash against excessive commercialism.

But it will be the NOCs around the world who are most likely to suffer, with the dilution of their main asset. Brands will have the option to steer clear of bulky rights packages and head, instead, straight to the athletes.

And the potential is for so many brands to develop ‘non-Olympic’ campaigns that official sponsors will have to reassess the value of official Olympic turf. Or for undesirable or controversial brands to tarnish the halo of the Rings. How much did Bodog offer Tiger? Any ISFs who already accept gambling partners will be hard-pushed to take a stand when the same brands turn to athletes…

The change surely has the potential to shift the entire Olympic sponsorship landscape. Sponsors in the Olympic family will be faced with the need to develop stronger, more differentiated sponsorship propositions. The marketing landscape would be shaken up, there’s no question about that.

An apocalyptic picture. Life rarely pans out exactly as predicted, but here at Redmandarin, we’re left asking ourselves: which is the baby and which is the bathwater?

Red Thread

brand purpose and sponsorship

Whatever happened to vision? It used to be a fundamental part of how businesses described themselves. I grew up with it…. Nowadays though, business vision is really hard to find. It’s been well and truly eclipsed by purpose. How a CEO responds to the ‘purpose’ question is currently one of the acid tests of leadership quality.

From the abundance of ‘purpose’ now visible, it would appear that the goal of ‘increasing shareholder value’ is no longer (sufficiently) defensible, and that the Zeitgeist is obliging businesses to embrace a more holistic, and more relativist view of their own existence. By relativist, I mean simply recognising their interdependence with the society and environment which surrounds them.

Definitions of brand fall out of date almost as soon as they’re codified – because brand is simply the name we give to our changing relationship with the commercial entities around us. Are the CEOs of major global organisations such as Unilever responding to a shift in public values and what we expect from a brand? Are they simply responding as human beings to those same changes?  The Damascene Conversion of Interface’s Ray Anderson is well recorded; and PwC’s Ian Powell is widely quoted as seeing the future of women in work through the eyes of his daughters. Even Richard Branson, whose early entrepreneurial existence was hardly characterised by a triple bottom line, is waxing messianic in later life. Or are they caught up in a C suite groupthink, the likes of which we experience with each fresh corporate scandal? Only time won’t tell because, like sponsorship, there are just too many variables.

Psychology helps us of course. There is plentiful evidence to indicate that people respond well to a sense of individual and of shared purpose. Viktor Frankl’s short but powerful account of life in a concentration camp, Man’s Search for Meaning, relates how only meaning and purpose made survival possible. A sense of purpose, as much as a sense of attachment or sense of self,  or a need for responsiveness, is a ‘human given‘ – a sina qua non of existence.

For all that it feels like a trend for Millennials, brand purpose has to be a good thing. The whole exercise of looking at purpose is healthy. It helps organisations look beyond the usual horizons of business as usual, and re-examine their customer relationships, with all the opportunity that brings to tap into the creativity, innovation and reinvention, writ large or small, that offers. Carol Cone, founder of the world’s most ‘purposeful’ brand agency, Cone LLC (and now at Edelman Business + Social) summarises nicely: it enables meaningful engagement with all an organization’s stakeholders, from employees to consumers to communities (see: Starbucks, Chipotle, PNC Bank); it drives growth, demonstrated by Jim Stengel in his book GROW; it inspires innovation, compellingly articulated by Michael Porter. ‘It transforms (B2B) sales conversations from price-based ‘beat up the vendor’ sessions to high-level strategy partner discussions. It turns senior managers into industry thought leaders.’ I’m not so sure about the intention behind this description, Sense Worldwide, but you land the point.

The debate about the commercial value of brand purpose is just a replay of the tired argument around the value of CSR. Writ larger of course, because purpose in this context is de facto integrated systemically. Like sustainability for smarter businesses, it has evolved from a separate, into a distributed function.

We have an opinion of course. It’s easy to get distracted by the rules of engagement of CSR: but CSR is sponsorship. We’ve alluded to the twin-like nature of the two in earlier Threads. They both play out in the real world, on the brand – audience relationship, they both live or die by the brand’s ability to add its own unique value. They both offer the opportunity to create proof-points for a brand’s values. Purpose, CSR or sponsorship without proof-points are just more rhetoric. They each require businesses to be emotionally intelligent enough to understand the proof-points which have the broadest relevance for its key audiences.

Our sense of purpose here at Redmandarin… is plural, not singular. As mistrustful as we are of the seductive soundbite… To push the boundaries, to add real value to our clients, to stand for something better within our sector and, if pushed, to help organisations deepen their understanding of their relationship with customers and employees alike.

Red Thread

the right rights: Orange Wednesdays

In the immortal words of Mr Dresden, “never underestimate the power of the orange side“. After a run of eleven years, the much-loved 2-for-1 cinema promotion will be withdrawn by EE, and the final curtain will fall on Orange Wednesdays in February 2015.

In many ways, Orange Wednesdays was a victim of its own success. The promotion was synonymous with the brand – so much so that even when EE absorbed Orange back in 2010, the offer couldn’t be separated from the original brand; the sponsored property had taken on a life of its own. The name ‘Orange Wednesdays’ stuck.

It was only a matter of time before EE decided to withdraw Orange Wednesdays, but the question was when?

From the perspective of the rights-holders, this grand scheme to help drive footfall to cinemas on their most quiet night of the week was a huge success – with some people even shifting their normal film night, around six million free tickets being issued each year, and with some customers using the scheme over 70 times. Orange estimated that around three million extra cinema trips were being generated each year.

Looking back on 2003, Orange Wednesdays was clever because – and it’s easy to forget how significant this was – it was getting ever easier to switch between operators. The campaign provided tangible reasons (beyond price) for customers to stay with Orange by rewarding customer loyalty. And at that time, Orange’s brand didn’t really stand out. Orange needed to find a way to be the top of mind brand among mobile operators.

But with the multi-million pound launch of EE back in 2012, the closing credits were in sight. I would like to think that in a board room somewhere in Hatfield, there was a pitch mirroring that of their long-running advertising campaign to rebrand the scheme as wEEdnesdays. But with film audiences shifting their disposable income towards Netflix, the brand saturation of Orange Wednesdays, and the potential sale of the brand to BT, EE came to the conclusion that this was the point when the logic behind the withdrawal had become so irrefutable that consumers’ emotional attachment to it wouldn’t cause a national uproar.

But while it lasted, Orange Wednesdays was great.

Hearts and minds is the only way

A personal thread, this one.

I’ve been pursuing an MSc in Organisational Development for the last 18 months. With a special focus on Gestalt and complexity theory. I’ve learned a lot about the frustrations of OD practitioners – and I’ve been reassured by the admission that many ‘change’ initiatives fail to secure much traction. (Which reflects my own experience.)

I’m not planning a change of career though: the study is just better to understand how sponsorship can sit and deliver within OD frameworks. And the conclusion is: very nicely.

OD suffers from a multiplicity of definitions: in short, its aim is to improve organisational effectiveness. The answer to ’What is organisational effectiveness?’ of course increasingly reflects a sustainability perspective and therefore centres around: whatever serves the long-term interest of the business.

There’s usually a structural component to OD – how can we restructure processes, systems, teams to perform better.  But there’s always a human component. After all, an organisation without people is no more than a collection of buildings, books and machinery. So I’ve been surprised by how much of OD comes down to how employees are engaged, motivated and aligned with the organisation’s values, vision and direction of travel. Surprised and delighted, because we’re squarely in the territory of sponsorship.

There is a growing body of research into sponsorship, especially into the factors relating to consumer purchasing decisions. Although an internal dimension to sponsorship is widely acknowledged, there has been very little research into its organisational impact.

Aila Kahn and John Stanton from the University of West Sydney are a notable exception, exploring the impact of corporate sponsorships on employees. In 2010, Kahn and Stanton published a paper titled, ‘Examination of the Effects of Corporate Sponsorship on Employees of the Sponsor‘. Kahn and Stanton established a positive correlation between employees’ opinions of corporate sponsorships, and Organisational Citizenship Behaviour (OCB). OCB is defined as ‘individual behaviour that is discretionary, not directly or explicitly recognized by the formal reward system that in the aggregate promotes the effective functioning of the organization’, and includes altruism, courtesy, conscientiousness, civic virtue, and sportsmanship,

Organisational identification, or the extent to which an employee identifies with the organisation, is a key concept here, because there is an obvious and thankfully proven connection to organisational commitment and OCB. The centre of gravity of Kahn and Stanton’s research was to establish that approval of corporate sponsorship enhanced organisational identification, a point we alluded to in an earlier Red Thread (October 2013).

There were a number of limitations in their research. Critically, their methodology did not take into account the differing impact of different types of sponsorship activity, treating high profile national sports sponsorship as equivalent to partnership with a local not for profit organisation. My own experience – and common sense – suggests that both the nature and management of sponsorship activity is a major determinant of organisational employee engagement.

Here are two extreme examples.

Barclays’ sponsorship of the ATP was widely regarded within the business as a personal expression of CEO Bob Diamond, disconnected from the business and therefore incapable of generating organisational identification. Most companies, by contrast, allow employees an open or semi-open choice of charity partner – and charity partnerships of this kind usually record extremely high employee engagement levels. (Although not generally considered sponsorship, the charity of the year falls within our definition framework – an organisational alliance, modelling brand values and with an intent to deepen relationships.)

To suggest that sponsorships should be put to a popularity vote with employees is to miss the real point. Even to suggest that sponsorships need thorough internal activation is off focus. The absolute point is that sponsorship design needs to ensure absolute genuine alignment with organisational values and needs.

The whole field of ‘charity partnerships’ is underutilised. They deliver against different objectives from most corporate sponsorship, under-delivering on media but over-delivering on engagement. But in a digital age, an age of social media, the ability for businesses to carve out and deliver messaging targeted carefully against audience and brand, the not for profit sector offers more than ever a fertile territory for brand expression.

The phrase ‘hearts and minds’ is usually evoked to suggest an extraordinary commitment to connect emotionally with people. The truth is, it’s the only way.

Red Thread

Move over, passion

While we’re on the subject of research, there’s a piece from 2008 which is particularly relevant. It’s called ‘How brands twist our hearts and minds‘.

It’s an MRI study of neural activity present in subjects considering brand choices in beer and coffee categories and hails from Münster University. It shows how brand affinity overrides ‘rational’ or objective selection criteria.

The study is based on Slovic’s theory of affect heuristic which, basically, proposes that rational decision-making can be short-circuited by our emotions, and how the development of these short circuits is part of how we make life easier – by removing the pain of choice. Anyone who dreads the breakfast cereal aisle in the supermarket knows all about that, and indeed, philosopher and sociologist Renata Salecl’s The Tyranny of Choice is about precisely that.

Jacoby, Olson and Haddock (and subsequently others) established in 1971 that consumers actually consider a very small set of product attributes to arrive at a purchase decision, and the first of these are brand name and price.

The sponsorship industry sells on its power to make people feel and behave differently towards brands and this research confirms the process by which this happens. So the next time someone tries to sell you passion, tell them it’s all about the affect heuristic.

It’s not all good news though. The authors make the case for MRI on the back of the futility of research techniques which depend on the conscious mind for an answer. The dreaded question, included: would you be more likely to consider…?

My belief is that, in mature markets especially, sponsorship needs to have deeper relevance than much sports sponsorship – and every touchpoint needs to work hard.

Red Thread

the right rights: Mobilising the 12th Man

Football has long taken the headlines of sponsorship spend: the astronomical figures; the commercial competition vying with on the pitch performance; the increasingly challenging pursuit of tapping into fan ‘passion’ in new, interesting, and relevant ways. This means that a great football activation really has to be very special indeed – and our pick this month is precisely that – an activation combining fans, their passion, technology and borne from a very unique set of circumstances.

Mobilising the 12th man, a case study of C. S Hammam-Lif (football team, Tunisia) from 2013, is a shining example of technology’s true potential, how football passion helped overcome political and social restraints and the importance of understanding your audience.

Following the Arab Spring uprisings the Tunisian government banned the assembly of large groups in public places, and as a result football fans could no longer assemble in stadia to watch their local teams play. For C.S Hammam-Lif, playing without fan support felt like they had “lost 50% of their motivation”. Facing relegation, and with the deciding match of the season looming, C.S Hammam-Lif knew it needed to get its fans back.

For this defining game, the team replaced their missing crowd with a set of 40 speakers in the empty stadium. The speakers connected to a mobile phone app which allowed fans to register their emotions and cheer for their team.

By acknowledging the importance of the role fans play in determining the outcome of sports matches, C.S Hammam-Lif was able to engage 93,100 people, far exceeding the stadium’s 8000 capacity – and most importantly to win their game.

Red Thread

How to get the right balance for Sponsorship Content

The Tour de France is now well underway after a packed 3-day sojourn in the UK and the first flurries of associated marketing content have arrived alongside.

For the Brit-centric crowds the content highlight has been Jaguar’s Team Sky piece on Chris Froome cycling the channel tunnel. It’s a well shot piece, lots of lingering logo shots, and a tightly wrapped story.

It also highlights the big balancing act in producing content, brand message vs. share-ability.

The key dilemma is an obvious one: do you create a content piece that is  fully on-brand for the sponsor, lands all of your key messages, but does so at the risk of no-one watching; or one that is compelling, is of interest to the maximum possible audience, but possibly only tangential to the sponsor brand.

The test I always use for the latter – can you fully describe the content of this video without any need to reference the sponsor?

In this case, yes you can, and there is not a clear enough ‘ownership’ of the content by Jaguar to explicitly mention them  – Jaguar’s investment of hundreds of thousands of Euros becomes little more than ‘Chris Froome rides through the Channel Tunnel’. Jaguar have made a fair effort here but it’s branding by stealth; this is content about Team Sky with the maximum number of Jaguar images added and an attempt at integration in the VoiceOver.

The content is good. And a clip from the video even made it onto the Tour de France highlights show in a primetime slot with the UK broadcaster ITV – a coup for any content agency – but the clip was of Chris Froome, in the Channel Tunnel. No cars, no mention, no visibility of Jaguar.

“I do not regard advertising as entertainment or an art form, but as a medium of information. When I write an advertisement, I don’t want you to tell me that you find it ‘creative.’ I want you to find it so interesting that you buy the product”
– David Ogilvy, Ogilvy on Advertising

It’s a common problem and it gets harder the less ‘lifestyle-centric’ the sponsor brand is. NaS-Hennessey is still my favourite content collaboration because the piece is a full integration of the two brands that also happens to be compelling for that audience.

This issue of balancing brand and share-ability also highlights the importance of agency incentives. How your agencies are judged and rewarded makes a huge difference to your end product.

So if your content is produced by your PR agency (who are primarily judged base on reach and views) then the focus will be on share-ability, often at the expense of the core message. The worst case scenario is you’ve spent €100k, €200k, €500k, got a million views, and no-one is any the wiser about what you stand for.

If your content is produced by a creative agency you have the opposite problem. They’re usually an embedded agency whose work is scrutinised for brand messaging and there’s no need to worry about distribution as they use bought media. So they focus on delivering something that’s completely on brand and delivering your key messages, but of limited interest to anyone. Here the worst case scenario is the opposite; you’ve got a wonderful piece of brand messaging but no-one ever sees it. And you’ve still spent that €500k.

The best solution comes by acknowledging those motivations in the briefing process. So the brief to a PR agency is very different than that to a creative agency. To the PR agency the emphasis is on messages, brand integration, and that’s how you judge their delivery. To a creative agency the emphasis is on popularity, share ability, and maximum possible reach.

When great work happens agencies always like to take the credit, but the vast majority of the time it’s great clients that are responsible for it. The best clients often aren’t creative geniuses or wizard planners; they’re the ones who know how to brief their agencies to get the results they want, how to inspire those they work with to come up with solutions, and they know a great idea when they see it.

Red Thread

the right rights: Beats by Dre – The Game before the Game

Aside from the annual advertising festival known as The Super Bowl; the FIFA World Cup is the next biggest demonstration of creative prowess combined with a fight for share of voice.

And so, as the tournament kicks off, we all get comfy in our critic’s armchairs, yellow pencils in hand, ready to judge the winners and losers in the battle for hearts, minds, eyes, and wallets.

This year, one brand stood up to be counted ahead of the others in an ambush campaign that kicked off in advance of the tournament. Beats by Dre launched their acclaimed ‘The Game before the Game‘ advert by agency RG/A on 5 June, and it has since been viewed over 23 million times on YouTube.

By entering into rights deals with individual players, Beats managed to use their allocated filming time and product endorsement to promote themselves around the key football event, without rights to the event itself. In the words of AdWeek ‘Beats by Dre just out Niked Nike’.

At just over 5 minutes, the advert was already crossing boundaries between advertising, a music video, and a short film, but by weaving together a compelling narrative with impressive cinematography and an engaging soundtrack, RG/A managed to deliver content with emotion, creative excellence, and product placement that didn’t shy away from saying – I’m an advert, this is what I’m selling.

Red Thread

Is O2 suffering writer’s block?

At Redmandarin we love storytelling. We tell stories in the office and at home, we even write whole articles about it. It cuts to the heart of what a good campaign does – engaging your audience emotionally and taking them with you on a journey.

Stories capture the imagination. They create anchors in our minds; carefully crafted points of reference, illustrations of behaviour, memorable articulations of values/actions, and they make ideas stick.

We’ve found storytelling a great discipline for developing strong and impactful sponsorship campaigns. A good campaign will have a strong narrative flow that carries chapter to chapter and allows you to evolve and add nuance to your messaging over time.

And a good campaign, like a good novel, is always driving you forward.

We use the O2 as one of our best practice case studies, a lesson in how to reposition a brand and a key contributing factor in O2’s tremendous success over the past decade. It was a fantastic launch vehicle, it spawned Priority which reshaped the sector and led to a hundred copycat briefs from other brands wanting in, and it’s still one of the most widely recognised sponsorships in the UK.

It was brilliant, but it’s been 8 years now and the story hasn’t changed.

It hasn’t changed because the O2 story was never structured as a narrative; it never had a clear moment where the initial campaign came to a natural conclusion and allowed the story to move on. The problem with ‘added value’ offers like O2 Priority is that over time they stop being something special and unique and just become part of what you do. You find yourself constantly innovating, adding new offers, spending more money just to stay where you are and to deliver the same meaning you used to have.

That original campaign needed a defined end point; a target to reach, or an event to serve as its great climax. A clear indicator internally as much as externally that one chapter had completed and now was time to move on. That’s particularly important with naming rights deals where the length of the term can distract brands from the need to be continually adding value through the actual campaigns they run. The O2 was brilliant for its first few years but it’s now living on past glories.

Even the very best campaigns have a natural life expectancy. Orange Wednesdays was a brilliant offer (our work for Orange on their global film platform is still one of our proudest moments) but it worked only because the advertising managed to refresh it every single time. It costs a huge amount of money to keep producing funny and engaging creative work that maintained a sense of relevance. Mother did an excellent job of playing and twisting the format – as soon as they were replaced and the quality of that creative dipped the campaign started a slow decline.

As an industry we tend to focus so much and expend so much effort on the launch of a new idea that we often don’t consider the whole life cycle. Consider Ford Maddox Ford’s page 99 test – continuously delivering something worth reading not just a snappy launch or ending. Whether it’s through setting specific goals, developing characters, evolving audiences, or seamlessly linking to the next instalment, your audience wants to know that they are going somewhere. Or they’ll follow a more interesting story elsewhere.

For every campaign we create we set ourselves a challenge. How is this business, this audience, or this community going to be different in 3 years time? It provides a focus for the campaign narrative that ensures you have a clear narrative in place and you never run the risk of a campaign drifting off and slowly petering out.