The conventional thinking in sports business is that there are two main classes of sponsorship. The first class, endemic sponsorship, traditionally refers to the core group of brands on which a sport relies. These are the brands directly invested in the success of the sport — manufacturers of hard goods, mostly — Adidas, Honda, Birdhouse Skateboards, etc. You know them well.
The second class consists of non-endemic brands. By the simple definition, they are outsiders, and their status as such comes tied to a healthy dose of consumer skepticism. After all, what business does a massive home goods retailer have slapping its logo on a surfboard? But that built-in consumer skepticism isn’t always a bad thing. In fact, it should inspire the best brands and put the onus on them to add value in any space in which they choose to participate. Passive participation is not an option anymore; there are simply too many ways to be authentically involved.
From the perspective of a participant, the scope of brands comprising endemics is limited. What products do you “need” as a participant in basketball? Some sneakers, gym shorts, a shirt, a ball, and not much else. But, from the perspective of a fan, the endemics can be seemingly unlimited. The list of “needs” for a fan in 2015 is massive: official apps, authentic merchandise and collectibles, tickets to the game, travel to the game, airfare, hotels, exclusive hospitality, “insider” coverage, documentary-style content, soft drinks, hard drinks, in-stadium concessions, at-home take-out, chain restaurants, local bars, cable packages, Internet, stats and analysis, parking, half-time entertainment, exhibition games and the list goes on. The secret to breaking through with sponsorship alongside a non-endemic product is simple: Make your brand endemic to the experience of being a fan. Become a “new endemic.”
Trust is hard-earned for non-endemics, especially in niche sports. Take Target. Its participation in action sports was viewed skeptically at first. But, they played the long game. When Target entered surfing, it dipped its toes in slowly, making a point to sign amateurs on the cusp of major surf-stardom. Soon, Target had enthusiastic, big-name brand ambassadors who had only ever known Target as a positive force in surfing. And in 2014, Target became the title sponsor of the Maui Pro, bringing the women’s circuit of the ASP Championship Tour back to one of the best surf spots in the world, and one at which women hadn’t competitively surfed for five years. Target became a new endemic with a notoriously difficult subset of sports fans by sitting back, observing, finding a real need for both athletes and fans, and filling it.
Elsewhere, PepsiCo has earned similar new endemic status in football, through an unprecedented investment in the Super Bowl halftime show over the last four years. Under the Pepsi banner, the show has skewed younger and more female. It is now appointment viewing for most Americans due largely to a string of knockout performances from Katy Perry, Bruno Mars and Beyoncé. Pepsi has accomplished this, first, by recognizing football as a substantial piece of the fans’ entertainment landscape, and then by marrying music to its brand (and to football) all year long. In the 8,750+ hours a year that the Super Bowl half-time show isn’t on TV, Pepsi doesn’t disappear. Instead, Pepsi nurtures its relationship with music through concerts, exclusive releases and the Pepsi Pulse platform which is dedicated to breaking new talent, the kind that might play the halftime five or 10 years from now. Effectively, they’ve become endemic to football’s biggest game by investing in music.
When Chipotle got involved in MLS last year, it made a point to contribute meaningfully to the soccer landscape, working with the league to develop an ownable platform in line with its brand messaging, which would ultimately reward an underserved segment of American soccer fans. The result was an All-Star Weekend event called the Chipotle Homegrown Game, a showcase for domestic talent unlike anything else this side of the Atlantic. Chipotle went from outsider to fan favorite in record time, because its involvement was genuine, and now Chipotle is a new endemic in the space.
So what do new endemics have in common? Number one, they are playing the long game, willing to invest the time necessary in their chosen space to contribute meaningfully. Number two, they are good listeners. They know what fans want and understand that filling a void in the landscape of the fan experience is more valuable than slapping their logo on a Kiss Cam. Number three, they participate authentically — this one goes without saying — fans are smart; and everyone hates bandwagoners.
Finally, new endemics bring something innovative to the table. Pepsi, Chipotle and Target all focused their efforts on delivering something new in the space, whether a sporting event unlike anything else on the continent, or just the next big pop hit. Fans will always be more likely to embrace brands that bring an entirely new experience to the table. If you’re going to play in the fans’ world, you’d better add value and do it actively.