Covid-19 & The UK Sponsorship Industry - Tackling The Current Crisis And Preparing For The Future: Part 3

Over the last couple of weeks, we’ve explored some of the broad themes affecting the sponsorship industry as a result of Covid-19. So how have brands responded in practice? In this article, we look at how sponsors have reacted to the unusual circumstances affecting them.

Making a bold statement: Vitality’s decision to sponsor the Women’s FA Cup is a good example of a brand standing up and being counted. Women’s soccer was on the crest of a wave before Covid-19 hit and has, like many disciplines, been forced on to the back foot. So Vitality’s three-year commitment comes at a crucial time. Clearly there is a lot of uncertainty about how Vitality will be able to activate the partnership in 2020/21, but that will probably be outweighed by the positive sentiment that the brand generates among target groups. Nick Read, managing director for Vitality, says: “We've been involved in both football and supporting women’s sport for many years, and this announcement highlights our commitment to the women’s game. There's never been a more important time to be involved in women’s football, and by working with The FA we hope to drive visibility of the women's team, showcasing this great sport and encouraging millions more people get active and play football, in line with our core purpose to make people healthier and enhance and protect their lives.” As part of its commitment to the sport, Vitality also unveiled former England footballer Alex Scott as a new ambassador for the brand.

Another brand that has elected to demonstrate its loyalty during the crisis is telco Vodafone, which recently signed up as sponsor of the British & Irish Lions 2021 tour of South Africa. Max Taylor, commercial director at Vodafone, says: “We think it is important for big brands to stand up, be present, act responsibly and support sport. Sport has had its challenges and needs help and it is important to step up.”

Then, of course, there are brands connected to the delayed Tokyo 2020 Olympics. In an interview, Tokyo 2020 CEO Toshiro Muto told Reuters: “businesses are in dire circumstances because of coronavirus but still there are companies who are coming forward to say they want to sponsor the Games, which we appreciate very much.”

Shifting spend towards community/charity: For the most part, brands have recognised that now is not the time to push for competitive advantage. So money that would have been allocated to marketing has been shifted toward community and charity-based endeavours. Sometimes this money is channeled via existing partnerships, but just as often it is ploughed into stand-alone activities.

Guinness owner Diageo, for example, has launched a US$100 million global programme called Raising the Bar to help pubs and bars adapt to post-lockdown trading conditions. The new programme provides targeted support to help pay for the physical equipment needed for outlets to re-open. For example, in the UK, the brand is providing hygiene kits with sanitiser dispenser units, medical grade hand sanitiser and a range of personal protection equipment (such as masks and gloves). It is also helping pubs and bars establish partnerships with online reservations and cashless systems, as well as funding mobile bars and outdoor equipment. “Pubs and bars sit at the heart of every community,” says Diageo CEO Ivan Menezes. “We have launched Raising the Bar as so many outlets have been impacted by this crisis and need help to open their doors again. We are calling on governments around the world to provide recovery packages to help the hospitality sector. These businesses play an essential role in bringing people together and sustain hundreds of millions of jobs, providing a first foot on the employment ladder for young people.”

Other brands that have taken the fight to Covid-19 include Anheuser-Busch, which announced in March that it would “redirect sports and entertainment investments to its non-profit partners to respond to the COVID-19 public health crisis”. As part of a US$5 million donation to the American Red Cross, Anheuser-Busch alongside its sports partners identified available arenas and stadiums to be used for temporary blood drive centres. In addition, the brewer has been using its supply and logistics network to produce and distribute hand sanitiser.

Also active has been O2 via its O2 Motion service. O2 Motion uses anonymised and aggregated data created by the mobile network to offer insight into movement trends across the UK. This data was used to support a report by Imperial College London into the spread of the disease. It has also provided insights into how the UK population has been moving during the lockdown and reacting to government advice. 

Leveraging Covid-19 imagery for the greater good: Cardboard cut-outs of fans have become a common sight in UK sporting venues, with supporters still unable to attend events due to Covid-19 restrictions. Betting brand Paddy Power, so often noted for its creative ingenuity, seized on this as an opportunity to support the charity Missing People. Working with Scottish Premier League club Motherwell, Paddy Power placed 1190 cut-outs of blank silhouettes across the South Stand at Motherwell’s stadium to raise awareness of people who have gone missing. In addition, Paddy Power is placing posters of missing people across its 650 stores in the locations that they were last seen. A Paddy Power spokesman said: “We all know fans are missing from football at the moment, but some are missing from wider life, too. We hope this campaign can spark conversations - as the majority of our customers are young men, the demographic that’s most at risk of going missing.”

Exploring marketing mash ups: With sponsorship assets often under-utilised during Covid-19, some brands have explored ways to integrate different areas of activity as a way of building engagement. Red Bull, for example, invited England cricketer and brand ambassador Ben Stokes to be one of its drivers in the Formula One Australian Virtual Grand Prix in April. In New Zealand, Unilever-owned mayonnaise brand Best Foods took a similar approach by integrating its sponsorships of rugby league team Vodafone Warriors and the New Zealand International Comedy Festival. In the space of just a couple of weeks, Best Foods created the “Vodafone Warriors x Comedy Festival mash up”, a digital content comedy series featuring Warriors players as talent. Head of Unilever New Zealand, Matt Rigby, says the content series was the ideal way to leverage its sponsorships, while supporting its partners during a difficult time. Best Foods also unveiled Come Digitally Dine With Me, a competition that gave Warriors fans the opportunity to have lunch with their favourite players via Zoom; and Lockdown Laughs, which saw the Comedy Festival team highlight their top picks of what to watch, listen to and read while isolating.

Prioritising digital: Not surprisingly, all brands have been exploring whether it is possible to have some kind of digital/mobile/virtual alternative to the real world activations that would have taken place. Coca-Cola, for example, joined forces with live music streaming platform BeApp to create the Coke Studio Sessions. All told, the brand collaborated with more than 100 artists across the globe, including Katy Perry, DJ Khaled, Nicky Jam and Gryffin, providing fans with virtual performances. Throughout the 60-day programme, fans who joined livestreams were given the opportunity to contribute to the International Red Cross and Red Crescent to support Covid-19 efforts. “We know people may continue to feel lonely or isolated as a result of the pandemic, and Coca-Cola remains committed to uplifting the human spirit and fostering connection while we’re apart,” says Pratik Thakar, director of integrated marketing communications, for ASEAN at Coca-Cola. “We hope Coke Studio Sessions will provide small, daily moments of entertainment for those adjusting to their new normal.”

Esports has been an obvious course of action for companies with sufficient budget – as has branded content. Olympic Partner Visa created a series with its athlete ambassadors called Do Your Part Like An Olympian - showing them performing feats of sporting prowess, dovetailed with simple COVID-19 safety measures like handwashing.

Digital innovation in sports sponsorship may be one of the most noticeable positives to emerge from the period, argues Gareth Balch, Two Circles CEO: “Though every corner of sport is hurting, we remain certain sport’s economy will thrive in the long-term, and when the impending recession bottoms-out, all sectors will rely on the best marketing platforms to grow their businesses. Sports properties that use this period to invest in their sponsorship propositions, moving away from analogue-led logo exposure to digitally-driven, tangible audience engagement, will thrive most post-Covid-19.”

Pivoting towards health products & services: Like most leading beer brands, Carlsberg has been very active during Covid-19. Globally, the Carlsberg Foundation has donated around £11 million in response to Covid-19 while in the UK it developed the ‘Love My Local’ platform - which enables pubs, bars and restaurants to offer takeaway food and drink. In the midst of all this it also unveiled limited edition red cans to celebrate Liverpool FC’s coronation as Premier League Champions.

At a more strategic level, the Danish brewer has also accelerated its activities around low alcohol, no alcohol and low calorie beer variants. With society placing a greater emphasis than ever on health during the current pandemic, there is a belief that consumers are heading in this direction now and are on the lookout for such products. In its home market of Denmark, Carlsberg recent launched Tuberg Zero. 

Across all sectors, brand are having to reconsider their approach to health, hygiene and sustainability - adapting both products and processes (think back to the supply chain scandal that derailed Boohoo earlier this year). This in turn represents an opportunity for consultancies to help brands build new Post-Covid profiles. Think also about the prominence of Tesla during the current crisis – with its emphasis on cut-price electric cars. With oil and gas giant BP also trying to assert its renewable credentials, there’s a persuasive argument for consultancies to attempt their own Covid-19 pivots.

Seizing the feel good PR opportunity: Like many brands, Heineken has introduced numerous measures to support the health and livelihood of employees and communities in which it operates. It also donated €15m to support the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) relief efforts for vulnerable people affected by Covid-19, in particular in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

It has also taken the opportunity to create tactical feel good moments that generate goodwill among audiences. For example, the brand approached the Italian singers who became famous for singing from their balconies during lockdown, and invited them to deliver a performance to start Formula 1's Italian Grand Prix in Monza. 

Hans Erik Tuijt, Director of Global Heineken Sponsorship, says; “We wanted to celebrate those that socialised responsibly during lockdown, and what better way than by bringing these inspirational performers to Monza to perform their national anthem.”

Rights holder perspective: It’s not just sponsors that have raised their game during the Covid-19 crisis. Formula E, for example, launched an esports competition to raise funds for UNICEF’s COVID-19 appeal. British horse racing also helped to keep fans’ spirits up by giving punters a chance to bet on the 2020 Virtual Grand National. Profits from the race were then donated to NHS Charities Together. 

UEFA has also provided an insight into the activities undertaken by Champions League teams during the crisis. Italy’s Atalanta teamed up with fellow Bergamo institution RadiciGroup to support the establishment of an emergency field hospital built by Italy’s National Alpine Association. The football club and chemicals company contributed to the purchase of all the facilities necessary for the administration of oxygen to the hospital’s 200 emergency beds.

In Spain, Barcelona offered their facilities to the Catalan government in the event that space might be required to cope with the number of COVID-19 patients. The club also donated 30,000 face masks to the health department of the Generalitat de Catalunya. Meanwhile in Germany, Bayern Munich, together with Borussia Dortmund, RB Leipzig and Bayer 04 Leverkusen, set up a solidarity fund worth €20 million to help smaller Bundesliga clubs that are struggling to cope with Covid-19’s economic fallout. In the UK, Manchester City transformed the campus on which their stadium and training ground sit so that it could be used by health bodies. The stadium was turned into a facility for training 350 nurses and also offered services for health staff including a rest, relaxation and exercise centre. The club’s car parks served as a drive-through coronavirus testing site. 

In France, Paris St Germain raised €250,000 for local healthcare services by releasing a limited edition shirt featuring the words ‘Tous Unis’ (All Together) in place of the club’s sponsor as well as other badges pledging support to medics. Through the PSG Foundation, various associations and bodies received 260,000 masks and goggles to help keep people safe. PSG also delivered 25,000 fresh meals.

Pitfalls to avoid: Most brands have recognised the importance of making a positive contribution to their communities during Covid-19. But it’s also important to realise that the media are always on the hunt for mis-steps that can be transformed into a piece of clickbait copy. Key areas that brands need to be wary of are a) quitting a sponsorship abruptly, since this looks like bad form during the Covid-19 crisis and b) seeming to be making marketing capital out of the virus. On the former point, Coca-Cola has faced accusations in the US that it exploited the pandemic to end a US$34 million sponsorship deal with the National Hot Rod Association. On the latter, Subway was harangued over social media when one of its stores was caught offering a free mask to customers who purchased any two regular sandwiches.

Pepsi has also been subjected to the Subway treatment. Although the soft drinks brand channelled serious resources into sponsoring a global entertainment special organised by the World Health Organization (WHO) and advocacy group Global Citizen to support the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, certain sections of the media have focused instead on an ill-judged sign in Florida which seemed to suggest that Pepsi was sponsoring a Walmart Covid-19 testing site. A spokesperson for Pepsi said in a statement, “This was an unfortunate mistake by one of our local sales associates that in trying to move with speed to get this important testing message up did not follow proper approval protocols. The sign has since been taken down.” The story goes to show how a simple error on the ground can create a social media storm that overshadows the positive work brands are doing.

Next week, in Part IV, we’ll take a closer look at the kind of digital options that have been open to sponsors during the Covid-19 crisis.

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