Covid-19 & The UK Sponsorship Industry - Tackling the current crisis and preparing for the future: Part 4 Leveraging The Power Of Digital

Traditional sectors of the economy have suffered severely during the Covid-19 pandemic. But digital platforms have taken up the slack in many areas of our lives – with remote working, distance learning, streaming and ecommerce very much in the ascendancy. For brands, the crisis has provided numerous opportunities to experiment with online and mobile-led innovations. Below are some of the areas that could potentially provide solutions for brands/sponsors looking for new ways to engage with their audiences and sustain relationships.

Zoom: With so many people working from home (WFH), Zoom has been vying with Tik-Tok to be the buzz brand of 2020. Interestingly, the video conferencing platform has also demonstrated its value in a sponsorship and sports marketing context. Last week we referenced work done by Unilever in New Zealand. Elsewhere, Formula 1 (working with CAA Sports) unveiled a partnership with Zoom to create a virtual Paddock Club experience for partners and guests. Across a race weekend, invitees were treated to experiences, including live updates and insight from legends of the paddock. Ben Pincus, Director of Commercial Partnerships, Formula 1, explained: “We understood the opportunity Zoom presented to us, which was about delivering a live sporting experience for guests despite the fact much of sport is currently behind closed doors. Zoom by its very nature is about enabling and connecting businesses remotely and this partnership, which has been developed virtually, is an example of just that.”

Online Tours: The closure of cultural institutions has clearly been a devastating blow – since the loss of live audiences means so many revenue streams are wiped out (and with them jobs). Nevertheless, arts institutions ranging from the Vatican to the Louvre have responded by offering online tours. Early in the pandemic, there were reports that some of these tours had led to huge spikes in interest, with the British Museum and National Gallery among high-profile beneficiaries. Some of the more ambitious examples of online tours have seen curators and artists walking among exhibits, providing unique insights. The Uffizi in Florence is one example among many. The message for sponsors is that there is an opportunity to partner with institutions on such activities, taking advantage of the surge in armchair museum goers brought about by lockdowns.

Content Marketing: Branded content has become an increasingly high-profile component of sponsorship in recent years, a trend noticeable in the increased number of entries into this category in the UK Sponsorship Awards. The growth of this area has now been further accelerated by Covid-19 closures – as brands look for ways to keep engaging with absent audiences. eConsultancy points to brands like Nike, which has been pushing out increased volumes of content via its various digital platforms (apps, podcasts, social etc). The key takeaway regarding branded content in the time of Covid-19 is to “be useful”, says eConsultancy. Based on its own research, it says: “brands are aiming to make themselves useful — not just entertaining — to consumers at a time when many of them are stuck at home.”

AR/VR: Augmented Reality is another digital tool that is experiencing a Covid-19 boom – with some ingenious examples on display. Brands have that taken advantage of AR include IKEA. Having used ads and vignettes to encourage people to stay at home, the Swedish furniture retailer then used AR to show them how a piece of furniture might look in their home. It’s then only a short step through to purchasing the item online. AR’s more glamorous cousin, Virtual Reality, has also been very prominent since Covid-19 struck, with innovations ranging from virtual showrooms to virtual tours of prospective house purchases. The tourism industry is also embracing VR as a way of preparing people for when they can go on holiday again.

Esports: On the face of it, you’d expect the world of competitive gaming to have come through Covid-19 unaffected. But it’s important to note that a big part of the esports boom has involved the growth of arena events, with tens of thousands of hardcore fans attending competitions live every month. It is this powerful form of engagement that has encouraged so many new brands into esports in the last couple of years. Nevertheless, the esports world is better equipped than most to shift from live to virtual events because of the nature of its content and audiences. This is why, at the start of the outbreak, its sponsorship revenues continued to hold up reasonably well. More recently, Esports Observer is reporting a range of deals involving brands such as Adidas, Puma, Audi, L’Oreal Men and Lenovo.

Slightly different from esports (but often bracketed under the same heading) have been the virtual versions of real events, which have provided another avenue for brands to connect with fans. The Grand National, Tour De France and F1 have all managed to pull large audiences online by launching their own digital esports editions.

Digital Billboards: With sports stadia empty, rights holders have been desperate to find new ways of making money – and one that has been the focus of attention is digital billboards. In the US, for example, Major League Baseball has been talking to several team franchises about adding new virtual signage positions in various locations around their grounds. Among these would be the pitching mound.

Innovation around virtual signage has also been evident in Europe, where the absence of crowds has encouraged some brands to experiment with placing their branding where fans would ordinarily be seated. An interesting case in point involved Coca-Cola’s sponsorship of Italian soccer’s Coppa Italia – which can be seen here. Clearly rights holders and sponsors need to be careful about how they go about such activations; but while fans are not allowed in stadia it makes sense for them to try and maximise their use of screens. 

Social Media Influencers: Like esports, you might expect social media influencers to have come through Covid-19 unscathed. But many have lost work as brands cut budgets or put projects on hold to review them. Travel influencers is one group that has clearly suffered at the hand of governmental restrictions. There has been some evidence of a recovery in the market since summer (although it remains fragile because of rising infection rates around the world). Areas where there has been growth include fitness, healthcare, cooking, cosmetics, horticulture and home improvements – namely those areas that can still be enjoyed from home. One key appeal of influencers for brands is that they can create content cheaply, making them an appealing alternative to TV ad activations. An emerging trend that sponsors might be able to piggy back is a shift towards live content, with some influencers engaging audiences for between 30-90 mins. For additional thoughts on social media sponsorship activations go here.

Podcasts: Podcasts as a medium have enjoyed a successful couple of years, rejuvenating the world of audio entertainment. There’s no particular reason why that should stop because of Covid-19 – which means they should  be of interest to sponsors. Energy drink Red Bull has been a pioneer in this arena with its What Does It Take and How To Be Superhuman podcasts, but there are plenty of other traditional and emerging brands that have also enjoyed success with this format (McDonald’s for example). For some ideas about how to make an engaging and effective sponsored podcast try reading this.

Data Gathering: The widespread shift towards digital rather than real world activations opens up an interesting avenue for sponsors and rights holders to gather and leverage data. In one interesting illustration of this point, British Rowing has just revealed that analytics leader SAS will continue to provide it with analytics solutions until December 2021, thus taking in the rearranged Olympic and Paralympic Games next summer. SAS will work with British Rowing to develop data solutions across the business, as well as investing in grassroots rowing. Through the partnership, SAS’ advanced analytics software and consultancy are used across broad areas of the business including membership analysis, competition ranking algorithms (the SAS Ranking Points Index) and performance data analysis. Commenting on the latter element, Nick Scott, British Rowing Head of Performance Support, says: “Rowing is an incredibly data-rich sport, but just having lots of data does not mean you will automatically find the next competitive advantage. With this SAS project, we are using analytics to link and interrogate never before combined data sources.”

Next week, in Part V, we’ll explore how M&C Saatchi Sport & Entertainment has been working with its clients during Covid-19.

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