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Euro 2016: Can You Sponsor Sincerity?

By: John Bell • No Comments

Sponsor-SincerityEuro 2016 has now begun, and with it the frantic efforts of marketing teams across the world trying to capitalise on the largest ever iteration of the tournament. In this article I argue that many are blinded by mass followings for brand exposure and miss out on the valuable ambassadors with a lesser following that lie on the periphery. The trap has been set; the continent’s most popular sport just got more popular with the addition of eight more teams and 230 million more viewers.

Alongside the likes of Coca Cola, Adidas, Orange, and Hyundai, is long-term sponsor Carlsberg; who have reportedly paid €40m for the privilege of being the official beer sponsor yet again and reportedly plan to spend a further €80m to capitalise on their position. This deal also includes a “in association with Carlsberg” slogan shown on Euro 2016 TV broadcasts in Europe. Of course this could be wonderful exposure but it misses the point – massively.

Okay, so there will be an unprecedented number of people watching the tournament this year but that doesn’t mean their allegiances are linked to officially endorsed brands. Take a look at RadiumOne’s research in the UK which found that out of the top 10 brands people associate with Euro 2016, only 4 were official sponsors. I’m willing to bet that the difference in association between Adidas (10.5%) and Nike (8.9%) means a lot to Adidas, but I’m not so convinced of its importance. It all boils down to a simple question of which is a better investment; millions spent on being ‘official’ and then millions more promoting the fact, or millions spent on marketing campaigns without the status?

This is not to completely dismiss the many advantages of being a sponsor, such as the ability to use terms such as “France 2016”, “Euro 2016”, and “UEFA” on marketing material without the fear of legal action and inevitable fines. Not that this matters to Nike though, who are among the best in ambush marketing. The ability to financially absorb fines isn’t necessary for marketing success sans official status though.

Welcome to now. The year is 2016: everybody and their grandmother has a smartphone, and we’re all glued to them. Again by RadiumOne, we find that when we’re not going to be watching the Euros this year we’re going to be reading and posting social media comments, chatting on IM, and calling others to discuss whether or not France’s defence is really up to the challenge. These are the Wild West realms free of endorsements, where people speak freely regardless of how much a brand has paid to UEFA. It’s here where brands cannot control discussion, but can influence and benefit from it if they’re smart enough.

Common sense is to hire a social media rep, which is insufficient for larger and fast moving conversations; or a social media team, which is costly and time consuming. Somewhere between the two lies an optimal option involving the deployment of marketing automation software and an agency that can help use it effectively. With this a smaller team can be used to monitor and involve a brand within a conversation, and when an event is triggered such as a known user visiting a link to a brand’s website that has been posted to social media, a personal message is sent to them to start a new conversation. 

The old adage of quality vs quantity

It’s also here where too many brands make the mistake of treating absolutely everything like mass media: the more views, likes, retweets, pins, or whatever your metric, the better the ambassador. Such is the logic of Chinese telecom company ZTE, who have opted to partner with the world’s most followed athlete on social media, Christiano Ronaldo. It’s easy to see why. With ambitions to develop their European market presence the most obvious choice should be the most popular athlete there. Not only that, but according to Brandtix, CR7 has the highest brand value of any football player in the world.

Better yet for brands is that he knows this and if the price is right, you’ll probably be able to partner with him too. His recent topping of the Fortune 100 highest earning athlete’s list comes with thanks to a long list of endorsements, generating around £32m in 2016. One of those many endorsements came to grace us three years ago when we witnessed an outlandish partnership with KFC. Even more bizarre is the fact that it appeared to actually increase sales on the day of release.

So if it gets results, why am I now going to argue in support of Tony Connelly’s article on The Drum a couple of weeks ago (Read here)? For one reason: sincerity. Nowadays endorsements from upper echelons of athletes often say very little for their true opinion of a brand. I can’t be convinced that CR7 likes ZTE, Emirates, and Castrol, for anything other than just their money; although I do like to think his endorsement for KFC came about in similar circumstances to Happy Gilmore’s for Subway:

Sadly, the world doesn’t seem to work this way. The current paradigm is to buy sincerity and mask it with mediocre acting. When you’re working with untrained actors though, sometimes the mask slips and a brands ability to control what happens goes out the window.

I like what I like

I briefly touched on ambush marketing earlier, however it’s not only conceited efforts to steal the limelight that can get brands the same exposure. Let us go back to Carlsberg, who were the English FA’s official beer sponsor last season, and the underdog story of Leicester.

After winning the league and making headlines across the globe the victory parade through the city arrives; and the beer brand on everyone’s lips…Fosters.

They didn’t pay for the privilege. It just so happened that Jamie Vardy likes Fosters, and who are the English FA to stop him? Now if Fosters were to sponsor him I’d believe it (though it’d take a lot more than that to make me drink it). Compare this with his rumoured Nike sponsorship spat which resulted in him playing in unbranded boots last December. Now I’m not so sure he prefers Nike over another.

In both situations neither Nike nor Carlsberg were able to stop their brand losing out; such is the risk of live broadcasts and instantly-shared statuses and photos. Perhaps there is some retribution in fines for obvious disregard, but once the damage is done it probably wasn’t worth all of that official sponsorship money in the first place. With digital media taking a massive role in this year’s Euro 2016, there’s even more risk of it happening.

Even the best of actors can’t be perfect live

Given that live media poses risks and opportunities for brands, and that social media is going to be used constantly during matches, UEFA should be meticulous in their adaptation to the modern age. The rightful launch of official Snapchat, Periscope, and Facebook Live accounts as communication channels shows great promise to increase engagement and create future advertising possibilities.

As for UEFA’s mobile site, there have been some difficulties in getting the same load times across Europe; leaving Spanish and Italian audiences without an official outlet to go to. Well, they could wait until the page loads, or they could go to an unofficial but fast-loading mobile site. I have a good idea of what they’ll choose.

The players that made it to the competition (and those that didn’t) are also going to be able to shape the conversation. They’ve adapted long before now, although their acting won’t have. Win or lose, when they livestream and Snapchat there will probably not be the Euro 2016 marketing strategy and corporate image behind it. All of this to say, I guess this summer I’m going to occupy my time looking out for all the unintended slaps-in-faces to sponsors.

So we should just abandon sponsorships altogether? 

I’m a proponent of athletes changing their approach to a Mesut Ozil-esque strategy of only associating with brands they actually like. For brands likewise, there needs to be an assurance that the ambassador shows the character traits that fit with the image other than just being successful. Through this approach there’s less risk of everything flying back in the face of sponsors, and more actual value added to partnerships. Fanbases will be more convinced if their hero has integrity, and therefore more likely to purchase. If every time a new deal is signed the audience dismiss it as a money grab a lot of potential value is lost.

Now we, and the ambassadors, have an outlet to criticise the charade and within seconds it’s shared with the world. Many marketers rightfully look at this as a massive opportunity as the same could be said for any endorsement on social media. Bear in mind however that criticisms from sports stars hold a higher degree of believability than their endorsements.

Instead of fighting to keep them happy and constantly trying to avoid that fatal blow of the mask slipping, it’s incredibly more sustainable and beneficial in the long term to form alliances with those who already align with the brand. Then the endorsement is sincere, people can believe the word of mouth hype. When deciding where to put the money, I’d put it where the word of mouth is.

About the author

Webmecanik account manager, professional beard grower, and mean Carbonara maker. Studying business management has taken me across most of Western Europe, yet I’ve still to find a room where I’m the smartest person there. A willingness to listen, learn, and contribute continues to shape my interactions with clients. If you promise to only laugh a little bit at my Scottish accent, I’m more than happy to help whenever you want.