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Driving customer engagement through sporting experiences

01 March 2023

This article first appeared in WARC written by, Nick Blenkarne, Head of Strategy, UK.

Why it matters: Sport is arguably the ultimate experience, and brand marketers can build on major sporting events with innovative and experiential activity that inspires customers by chiming with fans’ play and participation mindsets.

Key takeaways:

  • Experiences are a portal to participation for brands wanting to tie-in with major sporting events

  • For brands that don’t have automatic legitimacy in the sporting space, storytelling and narrative themes need to be created to build an authentic relationship with fans

  • Mass participation sporting events can be crowded advertising spaces but they also offer access to audiences on a scale not easily found

  • New formats are being designed across sport that is building engagement with established fans as well as bringing in new ones – these are offering brands new partnership opportunities

Sport is a universal language that everyone speaks and understands – it transcends geographies, age, gender and income. And as one of the things human beings are most passionate about, sport can provide a powerful platform and medium for brands to interact, and engage, with consumers. As such, experiences and sport have a natural affinity. Like sports, experiences allow people to learn and be inspired through play. While global tournaments like the World Cup are amazing to watch, their real power lies in making people want to get involved, get up and active and ultimately get out there and play themselves.

However, it can be difficult for brands to stand out and engage fans during these occasions; the fans are there to watch the sport; that’s their focus, and the sport on display is invariably what they really care about. Major sporting events are often a highly crowded advertising landscape with every sponsor looking for a slice of the attention pie. or brands to win, they mustn’t be an unnecessary distraction by interrupting the main event. They must find a way of enabling participation in a way that feels additive and relevant to the elite action on display.

In these moments, one-way communications are not enough to cut through, and to provide real meaning – and truly engage – brands need to create a stage set for fans to play and get active, writing their own narratives. This is where experiences come into their own and add value by becoming a portal to participation. For example, at the World Cup, Visa understood this, creating an LED football pitch for fans in the stadium to jump on and draw an NFT design with their feet, introducing a technology element that changed the way those fans saw the brand.

Visa, Masters of Movement, NFT
NFT, auction, Visa, Masters of Movement

So, what are the five key principles that brands must adopt for a well-executed ‘engage through sport’ activation?

1. Foster mass participation

Major sporting occasions are all about elite performance. Athletes at the top of their respective games are inspiring, making fans want to get out there and play themselves and experience a slice of what that feels like themselves. In the World Cup Visa example, the brand created a stage for fans to represent their country and enabled them to physically get up and out of their seats and feel involved in the tournament. This experience proved extremely successful for Visa, as not only did it change the way that fans thought about the brand, but Visa experienced significant ROI. Throughout the activation, Visa saw 120,000 visitors, resulting in 2,500,000 engaged minutes.

2. Find a credible story that links the brand to the sport

For brands that have a natural affiliation to sports – such as Adidas – activating around major sporting events is straightforward. For others, however, it’s key to think creatively to find a believable connection. Visa drew an analogy between the way its network enables the movement of money across the world, and the fluid and seamless movement of players and teams on the pitch. By creating a story that links the two together, fans are more likely to participate and enjoy the experience, and in turn, remember the brand with a positive association.

3. Experiment with new formats

Increasingly, sports fans are looking for reinventions or experimental new versions of sports that make them more fun and accessible. We’ve seen this in the past few years with the rapid rise of sports-related experiences such as Flight Club, Bounce, Swingers, Puttshack, Shuffleboard etc. In 2022, Major League Baseball experimented with the traditional longer-form baseball format and created a new short-form version, Home Run Derby X. This reimagined the sport for a new generation of sports fans. The new format helped fans immerse in the action as they were able to be part of the game, catching home runs as they were hit.

4. Serve fans with something unexpected

For brands to cut through the noise within an environment where all the attention is on the sport, they must activate in a new or different way that fans don’t expect. A great example of this is Sipsmith Gin, which at the Wimbledon 2022 Championships activated in a surprising way, with a ‘swancierge’ service. It began with classic British phone boxes to entertain guests in the miles of queue, where they were invited to answer the ringing phone, lift the handset and were then offered the chance to win a host of prizes and drinks vouchers. Guests could then redeem their vouchers from the Sipsmith Gin Cab further up the queue, and enjoy more Swancierge offerings inside the grounds. This experiential brand activity provided tennis fans with an added incentive to get involved. Who wouldn’t want the chance to win a free drink at Wimbledon?

5. Think broadcast-first

One of the reasons major sporting events are such a huge opportunity for brands is that they are typically widely broadcast. But successful brands will turn experiences into broadcast mechanics with mass reach too. Sky understood this during its activation in the Open Championship in 2022. The brand introduced fun content such as “the open zone challenge”. This allowed the brand to appeal to fans from the established to the newcomer, ensuring a wider spread of its content.

How can brands score with sports fans?

To execute an ‘engage through sport’ activation successfully, brands need to create something new, innovative, exciting and inclusive. Getting fans involved will be crucial, as well as leaving them with something memorable – to extend the brand's influence. By doing this brands not only ensure higher engagement during the event itself but will also build word-of-mouth brand endorsement among sports fans. Even in crowded advertising spaces like global sporting events, this helps brands ensure they are standing out.

Part of the appeal of following a sport is the sense of belonging. The teamwork, community and competition are all part of the often visceral fan experience. Therefore, the brands that actually make something, whether it’s an experience to be involved in, a competition to be part of or something physical for the fans to takeaway with them, will be the brands that gain the most interaction from fans – building this sense of belonging.

Nick Blenkarne, Head of Strategy

Nick Blenkarne

Head of Strategy, Imagination London

As Head of Strategy, Nick is responsible for laying the strategic foundation for inspiring brand experiences working with clients such as Visa, Major League Baseball and LG. Working symbiotically with creative and project delivery teams to deliver insight-driven campaigns grounded in experience, and amplified by compelling content and smart uses of social. With a focus on effectiveness, he employs a mix of planning tools and techniques to ensure those experiences are both solving business problems and adding value to customers.