Over the last few weeks I’ve been thinking a lot about sports marketing, and this past weekend I was reminded of why: the emotions tied to sports are palpable and real, and they are the kind of emotions that brands can only dream of being associated with.
It’s really simple, if you think about it. Try and find one other area of life where the emotions are as high or as passionate as they are with sports. I’ll go out on a limb and say that sports only come second to birth and death when you consider their emotional ramifications. It’s not uncommon for diehard sports fans to be as excitable and enthusiastic when talking about their favorite baseball or football team as when you hear a parent talk about the birth of their children or the memories of their parents when they’ve passed on. It taps into the same emotional core in our brains, and it creates lifelong associations.
It’s not realistic to assume that household cleansers or shampoos can create that same emotional connection, but it is extremely plausible that brands want their consumers to have a strong, positive association with their brands, which is why sports sponsorship is such a tricky business. Sports sponsorships require a brand to engage in a trusting, long-term relationship, because you have to have faith that the athlete will stay relevant, and on the right side of the ethical mores that society puts forth for people in the public eye.
Athletes are aspirational as well as inspirational, meaning that we can all aspire to be like them (for example, as self-confident as Tim Tebow). They are also fatally human, meaning they are only as good as the best or worst of us (see so many examples of mistakes from athletes in recent years). It may not be fair to place athletes on a pedestal and hold them to a higher standard, but that's what we do, and it's why sports sponsorships exist. There is high associative value to working with athletes, paying them significant money for the privilege of transferring their positive brand equity to our brands.
If you think of the best sports marketing images of the last 50 years, you think of the images of strength and confidence that come from a truly inspirational sports figure. I think of Mean Joe Green in the Coke commercial. I think of Michael Jordan in the Nike spots flying through the air. I even think of humor (when it’s done right), like the Peyton Manning Mastercard commercials. In all these ads, brands were able to harness the power of sports to differentiate themselves in the eyes of consumers. That differentiation translates to sales.
What's really interesting to me about sports marketing is that it would not have existed without television -- and its future is indelibly tied to online video. Sports is a physical and visual medium. You have to be playing sports to understand the physicality involved, and you have to see others play sports to learn about it and understand it fully. If TV had never been invented, the NFL would be nowhere near as popular as it is, and the NBA and Major League Baseball would be half the size they are today. Television created a way for everyone to see sports without having to physically be there, and the images you see on those broadcasts have inspired millions of people to pick up a bat or ball and play. Those images are inspirational, and online video is going to extend them even further.
Social and mobile media are the future of sports marketing. With the use of mobile video, and sharing video through social platforms, these images can take on a life of their own. The more those images, in all of their video glory, can be shared and seen by droves of fans, the more impact they will have, and the more opportunity there is for a brand to reach a passionate audience. Television (in a close second with the actual stadium) is never going away and will always be the primary vehicle for sports marketing, but digital media has one heck of a future for sports marketing as well. Just you wait and see!