I realize there are dozens of ways to answer that and certainly plenty of opinions on what's really considered a true sports marketing campaign, but I dove in, nonetheless.
In reality, any time you associate your brand with a sports-related product, service, event, athlete, etc., you could make a legitimate claim for that to be considered "sports marketing." But is the simple act of association with sports enough to really have an impact on your brand? For some, it is. Whether it's a dasherboard ad in an NHL rink or a print ad with an endorsed athlete, sometimes that's all a company wants -- or can afford -- to do.
But for companies within the sports industry, much of what we do is sports marketing-driven, marketing our product/services through some aspect of sports participation or presentation, to reach our core consumer.
Most of the time, we get it right; sometimes we don't. But when we don't take the steps to really understand and engage the audience, we're missing the mark and are no different than the company who's happy just to have its logo on the side of a racecar.
As an example, I was fortunate enough to check out some of X Games XV opening day at the Home Depot Center in L.A. after Group Y's exceptional Action Sports Conference. I roamed the grounds with a few colleagues from the action sports business, and we noticed quite a lot of logo presence for New Balance around the venues -- the big NB on the half pipe, at the skate street course, the BMX course, the viewing areas for rally cars and MX. But what left us a little confused was its association to the X Games. We all knew New Balance as a great running shoe company, but with little to no ties to action sports.
Being marketing people, we checked out the venues but couldn't find anything to answer our questions. Other than having great logo presence, there was no real connection to the event -- it appeared to be like any other brand hitching its marketing wagon to the action sports market.
A bit of digging online during and in the weeks after the games yielded not much more to clarify, other than a mention of New Balance's involvement with a nice fundraising event for the V Foundation prior to the games.
The TV ads that ran on ESPN during the X Games were all part of its Love/Hate campaign that speaks to runners about their "relationship" with running -- cool campaign, but no association to action sports there either.
Even a visit to NewBalance.com in the weeks after games showed nothing more than a photo gallery of shots taken by one of its senior designers. There are some nice photos, but nothing that associates the NB brand with X Games or action sports.
So what was the point? I did see that New Balance was a sponsor of both winter and summer X Games. But without really activating the brand on-site, or at the very least, giving some clarity as to why it's involved with action sports, it becomes a bit of a head scratcher.
Especially so, because New Balance is a smart company that's always had a grasp on who it is in the footwear business and how it communicates that to customers.
It has stood by its "endorsed by no one" philosophy for years and has done great things within the running community and especially with the Susan G. Komen for the Cure organization.
Granted, I recognize the importance of all the strategic, financial and logistical decisions that go into any sponsorship, but not really leveraging an opportunity like this seems a bit off base. Just associating your brand with a sport can actually do more harm than good, especially with an audience that's smart enough to sniff out the hangers-on.
So I ask, is this "guilt by association?" Is it okay to simply bring your brand to the people and let them decide if it fits? Is this sports marketing? Let me hear your thoughts.