Sponsorship in 2022: Themes & Trends

2022 is set to be another volatile year – with Covid infections, inflation, rising energy prices and supply chain problems expected to be a drag on the global economy. Add to that the increasing politicisation of sport (think of the Peng Shuai incident), the race to net zero, and the relentless rollout of the digital economy, and sponsors are going to have to be even more agile, creative and innovative than usual if they are to make meaningful connections with their target markets. Here are a few themes and trends that the UKSA team expects to define the sponsorship sector in the coming year.

The need for a Plan B: None of us really expected events to still be at risk of cancellation two years after Covid-19 first hit. But the threat of government intervention, combined with a reluctance among businesses and consumers to mingle unnecessarily, means events are often pulled at the last moment. The Omicron variant has further exacerbated the problem by forcing people off work – which means that events sometimes can’t take place because they lack staff. This can be anybody from security and bar staff to Premier League footballers. For sponsors, it means that there always has to be an alternative activation waiting to go – something simple and scalable that can be triggered rapidly. Usually this will be digitally-based.

Increased calls to go green: Even before COP26, brands were under pressure from lobby groups and consumers to play their part in the climate change debate. Going forward, sponsors will need to ensure that ESG considerations are factored into their strategy. One area that often attracts criticism is unnecessary travel, so expect to see more local activations that have a relatively modest carbon footprint.

More checks and balances: Rights holders can face pushback when they form partnerships with certain brands and sectors. The most obvious example of this is the relationship between leading arts institutions and fossil fuel energy giants like BP. This is also an issue for brands. When Kingspan signed up with the F1 Mercedes Team, it clearly didn’t anticipate the backlash it received as a result of its links to Grenfell Tower. Likewise, the sponsors who piled into esports didn’t foresee the sex discrimination scandal that has engulfed Activision Blizzard. The message for brands is – more due diligence. If there is a risk that a high-profile association is going to generate negative PR, look for more subtle partnerships. Always remember that the media will sniff out a controversial story if there is one to tell.

Data-driven analysis: Sponsorship has been embracing digital platforms for years – but there’s still a general tendency to think in terms of top line engagement figures such as followers and likes. The true value of digital, however, will be the application of data analytics to sponsorship partnerships. Closer co-operation on data will enable sponsors to generate valuable insights into fan behaviour that can be converted into brand engagement and purchase drivers. Data can also be used to tell stories that capture the attention of fans, and to help teams and athletes improve their performance. Both of these are areas where brands can be facilitators of actionable insights.

Community activism: We’ve already highlighted the importance of going green, but brands are measured in so many ways these days. Diversity is clearly a crucial metric – and so is a brand’s commitment to community and cause-related initiatives. Post-pandemic, this CSR component of sponsorship is likely to be even more important – because of the damage inflicted on people’s lives (lost loved ones, lost jobs, mental health issues, educational gaps etc). Sponsors that find ways to restore community cohesion as part of their programme of activities will win the hearts and minds of consumers.

The desire for physical experiences: Notwithstanding the first point about needing a Plan B, there’s no doubt that young people are desperate to get out and enjoy themselves. Netflix, esports, social media, etc.,  can only satisfy them up to a point. Festivals, nightclubs and sports events are an obvious focal point for youth demos, but so are gyms, escape rooms, cooking classes and the like. As far as restrictions allow, sponsors in 2022 should be looking to facilitate experiences.

The 360-degree content ecosystem: Sponsorship these days isn't just about a handful of live event activations, it’s a 24/7 engagement model that draws on a range of stories and talent. Young audiences in particular are not focused simply on water cooler events and global megastars (though these are of course important and aspirational). They want snackable video content, influencers, podcasts and the like. In other words, securing headline rights to a major event is only the start of the dialogue. From this foundation, sponsors need to exploit every aspect of the partnership - and create entertaining ancillary assets that can be leveraged across both digital and IRL platforms.

Emerging opportunities: Esports is often held up as the big emerging sponsorship opportunity, but tech transformation is unlocking a wide range of new platforms. VR/AR, 5G and AI/machine learning will create new opportunities for sponsors to connect with audiences. And don't forget that there are other forms of disruption. The switch from fossil fuels to EVs, for example, paved the way for FIA Formula E. The inexorable trend towards shorter, more dynamic game formats has led to events like cricket’s The Hundred (which is sponsored by KP Snacks). It always pays for sponsors to see disruption as an opportunity to do business in new ways, rather than a threat.

Politicisation of sport: We mentioned this point in the introduction, but these days brands have to accept that politics and sport go hand in hand. The best example is the growing trend for athletes to ‘take the knee’ in protest at racism. However Marcus Rashford’s work around child hunger and poverty and the WTA’s Peng Shuai stance show that the issue goes much further. For some brands, the current trend is an opportunity for them to make a statement about their own values – but even if social activism isn't in a brand’s DNA they need to be prepared for how they will behave around such issues.

Women’s sport: Women’s sport was building up a strong head of steam when the pandemic hit in 2020. Some of the momentum was lost when live events were cancelled, but gender equity was a key theme at the Tokyo Summer Olympics, so hopefully that will provide a strong platform for a 2022 bounceback. Other positives include the rise of tennis star Emma Radacanu, the first female winner of the Grand National (Rachael Blackmore), and the popularity of English soccer’s Women’s Super League, which is aired on Sky Sports and the BBC. Another welcome indicator for 2022 is a new survey that found 52% of women in the UK are watching sport at least once a month.

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