A Different Perspective

Sports marketing is usually defined as sponsorships or endorsements of sports events and athletes. It is a powerful way of associating a brand with stories -- equity in marketing terms -- that consumers are interested in and passionate about. But could there be more to it than that?

Over the past few years, we have leveraged our BrandZ Top 100 brand value ranking to develop insight and guidelines on what makes brands effective at building value for their companies. Our Best Brand Builders analysis suggests that building valuable brands requires a number of capabilities and some specific organizational focus. One of the things that came out strongly was the need for a higher brand purpose -- an objective that goes beyond narrow product benefits to address consumers' higher order needs.

One example of a successful, value-creating brand with a higher purpose is Zappos, the online footwear retailer. Through its commitment to "delivering WOW through service," Zappos is really addressing people's need to be happy and satisfied. Zappos uses its employee training and sophisticated customer relationship management processes to ensure that every brand interaction delivers the best service its customers have ever had. As a result, Zappos has grown its revenues from nothing to more than $1 billion dollars in 10 years in a mature category.

The question then comes to mind: Can sports marketing help brands deliver on a higher purpose?

Sports are usually part of a healthy lifestyle, and promoting a healthier life would certainly qualify as a higher purpose for a brand. Yet research suggests that people who are interested in sports aren't necessarily sporty themselves: Watching games on TV is not a physically challenging activity. Most people who buy sneakers and sports apparel aren't even particularly athletic.

Sports often represent something more aspirational and distant -- entertainment watched on TV, or a relaxed, trendy and comfortable dressing style, but not something consumers actively engage in. How, then, could sports marketing provide stronger incentives for consumers to get off the couch and engage in sports and exercise?

Red Bull is one example of how a brand can leverage sports marketing to get people more active. The brand's higher purpose is to uplift mind and body, and it uses sports activities to further that objective. In addition to sponsoring a whole range of extreme sports activities -- from large to small and from advanced to more entry level -- Red Bull also organizes competitions for non-athletes, encouraging participants to become more physically active. One such event is the "Flugtag," during which participants attempt to fly in their own homemade machines.

Another example of a brand encouraging people to get more physically fit is JP Morgan Chase. The brand's 30-plus-year-old Corporate Challenge is a global event held in a dozen cities worldwide and encourages fitness in the workplace. While this event is a great example of how sports marketing can be harnessed for a greater good, it is unclear how it ties with JPMorgan Chase's brand positioning. It seems to be more of a standalone event.

Now, what can sports marketers learn from this? The key message is that sports marketing can contribute to a higher brand purpose, such as helping people live more active lives. This means getting involved in events that encourage people to become physically active themselves, rather than just catering to their interest in sports as spectators.

Does that mean that brands should stop associating with large sports events and athletes? No, these are ways to enrich a brand with powerful, aspirational equity. However, more emphasis should be put on helping consumers get closer to that aspiration through involvement in events that encourage active sports participation. As our research has shown, this will help brands become more valuable to their companies and to society.

1 comment about "A Different Perspective ".
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  1. Bryan Kimbell from Adrenalin, Inc, August 17, 2010 at 11:28 a.m.

    Great insight and a viewpoint that many sports properties themselves lack. Building sports brands is much more than putting a winning team on the field, pitch, ice, etc. It involves incorporating the sport and values of the sport into the surrounding community - if for nothing else than inspiration and getting butts off of couches.

    Thank you for the post. Hopefully more sports marketers will mature their viewpoint to include the branding potential outside of the stadium.

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