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Why brands now approach sports sponsorship with caution

Sports sponsorship has always had glamourous appeal - which brand doesn't want to increase its status by being linked to competitiveness, action and success? But of course for all the high octane thrill and drama often associated with sponsoring a team or individual comes the risk that should things go wrong - on the sports field or off, it is often the brand that suffers as much as player(s).

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Thus talk about crisis communications management is bandied about a lot – even more so now that social media leaves no brand a rock to hide under when it comes to dealing with good comms turned bad. We’ve seen big names hit by them all – from sex and drug-related scandals to sporting heroes ending up in the courtroom.

But at the end of the day these are the risks brands have to take when signing up to associate with a sports team or – even more risky – a sports individual. If you’re backing an individual, you are effectively borrowing from their reputation and if that comes crashing down around them – as in the recent cases of Lance Armstrong and Oscar Pistoruis there is little that a sponsor can do other than call an emergency crisis meeting and handle the fall out as best they can from there on in.

Or is there? The reason I pose this question is because, as far as I can see, an increasing number of brands are actually responding to potential crises in the sponsorship arena before they happen. They are looking to prepare and mitigate before the potential disaster, rather than simply respond and attempt to rebuild after it has taken place.

I’m not suggesting that in every scenario that this can happen – nobody could have predicted that Pistorius would end up entangled – rightly or wrongly – in a forthcoming murder trial – but there are increased measures being taken to account for potential situations where possible.

Andy Sutherden, global practice director of sports marketing and sponsorship at Hill & Knowlton recently summed it up well for me when he said that where once, the PR agency in particular dared not suggest to a client what might go wrong when discussing a forthcoming sponsorship deal, in today’s open climate of two-way communications clients are more accepting of the fact that things don’t always go to plan. As he deftly puts it; "Would you ever get behind the wheel of a car without insurance?" 

Hill & Knowlton worked with Omega – official timekeepers of the London 2012 Games. Remember when the giant countdown clock positioned in the middle of Trafalgar Square suddenly stopped after just a day? Hill & Knowlton had already addressed that ‘what if’, however awful it would be if it actually happened, way before the clock was wheeled out to the public. And in the end the fall out wasn’t so bad. In part the brand itself made a joke out of it. They gave the clock its own Twitter personality when it broke down – with it telling the Twittersphere that it felt unwell, that it was on the road to recovery… they created a dialogue around the story rather than bury it.

Some agencies now work with clients ahead of campaigns to simulate potential crises and how they might play out on social media, which is of course, these days, the main channel through which crisis comms is managed. Where once social media was seen as the enemy when it came to crisis comms – a fire to be fought as quickly as possible when disaster did break out, now brands are seeing how it can help them to avoid calamity in the first place.

There are other lessons brands are taking on board when it comes to sports sponsorship too – for example looking to take on an individual brand ambassador – such as a winning Olympic athlete – for a short time period only. Think of it like this, if you’re a brand sponsoring a medalist then you’re seeking to capitalise on what is the peak of their popularity. The best way to approach this is often to seek to create a positive association over a relatively short space of time – normally a much shorter time span than the sponsorship of a team or a sporting event can offer.

I wouldn’t say that brands are necessarily becoming more cautious when it comes to addressing the potential pitfalls associated with sports sponsorship – I’d simply way that they are becoming more aware.  Typically our industry has been bought up to plan for good things.  It’s only been in the past few years that brands have really started to look much harder at ‘what if it goes wrong’?

Pete Davis is managing director of Getmemedia.com

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