In the lead-up to the year’s quintessential sports event — Super Bowl 49 in Phoenix — FleishmanHillard TRUE talked to Jared Augustine, the CEO, and Mark Gerson, the co-founder, of sports marketing agency Thuzio about new trends in the way brands leverage athletes, teams and sports events.
TRUE: What trends are reshaping the ways brands use sports to market?
Augustine: There are two trends redefining how sports and athletes are being used. The first is unquestionably the leveraging of athletes on social media. Social posts have become wildly popular with brands. We’ve executed – on literally hundreds of occasions – such posts on behalf of brands. For instance, Care One was a client of ours this year for a major charity event held at Fenway Park in Boston. We procured Michael Strahan and Tiki Barber posting for the main event at the stadium. Leading up to that event, the brand also booked Rob Gronkowski of the New England Patriots to post as a way of generating momentum.
Social is now a given. Where in 2012, 20 percent of branding appearances that we booked involved a social post along with a live appearance, that’s probably closer to 80 percent today. The reason behind it is clear: Social is the way people, especially younger people, interact these days. It also exponentially amplifies the impact of that athlete for the brand, as a lot more folks will see that tweet or Instagram than might make it to an appearance – perhaps not the same targeted demographic, but much bigger numbers.
Tapping into nostalgia is another increasingly important trend. That has brought in athletes who may not have been the first name associated with a team, but are known for something particular. Of course, everyone has been talking about the extraordinarily funny and warm Geico campaign that uses Dikembe Mutombo and Ickey Woods. It’s a perfect example of using two players known for something in particular – Woods for his end-zone dance and Dikembe Mutombo as one of the greatest all-time shot blockers in the NBA. It’s just a really smart way to leverage the brands of talent whose careers were peaking when Geico’s target demographic was 12 or 14 years old. You’re hitting a passion point.
TRUE: Your agency relies frequently on retired athletes. Is there a reason for that other than the fact they may be a bit cheaper?
Augustine: We do a lot of branding and client-entertainment events, and retired players have a lot to say. They have real experience and real wisdom to share, and are less guarded about sharing it. Retired players aren’t as scripted as current players. For retired players, those campaigns might be the most important thing happening in their lives at that given moment. With current players, that’s never true. Their focus is on the game itself, as it should be. That’s what they save their energy for. But with retired players, a brand is going to get the very, very best of what those athletes have to offer.
Gerson: Every brand is looking for something different. But if a brand came to us with the assignment of finding a player or ex-player for a humorous spoof that would attract males ages 40 to 55, then going to someone like Ickey Woods is a perfect fit. Ickey had a bigger-than-life persona at the peak of his playing days, and everyone attached him to that fun and happy-go-lucky touchdown dance that he did. If the purpose of a marketing event is to really communicate and connect with C-suite executives, we might go to a Roger Staubach, who was able to accomplish so much in his post-football, professional life, in the way of building and growing a business.
Augustine: I think nostalgia is going to be a trend that grows. Lots of brands will recognize the success of these campaigns, leveraging retired athletes who really care deeply about performing and frankly are incredibly affordable and ROI-positive for brands.
TRUE: What has been the impact of the recent scandals in the NFL on how brands regard the use of athletes and connecting their messages to certain teams?
Augustine: Football and NFL athletes generally remain the most popular and the most requested, but increasingly brands want to be very aware of the good, the bad, and the ugly with any individual team or athlete. They will alter a campaign based on something negative occurring with a particular league, team or player. It’s become a value add when companies like ours can help brands be strategic in navigating potential minefields and create a level of awareness and transparency around these kinds of issues.
TRUE: How about major events like the Super Bowl? Is the role of brands changing there?
Augustine: Brands want to leverage the power of sports, and yet investments into leagues, teams and a major event like the Super Bowl may be hard to justify at times. Instead, we’ve seen so many brands and corporations find creative ways to leverage talent to capture the energy of these major events in different ways, sometimes more targeted ways. An example is professional services company Ernst & Young. During the Super Bowl hosted in New York, it converted its office cafeteria into a replica of MetLife Stadium and procured legends of the game like Dan Marino, Joe Montana and Phil Simms to be a part of Q&As with its key business stakeholders and employee population. That’s an example where a company didn’t necessarily decide to take the plunge to a full level of sponsorship of an event, but did want to capitalize on the excitement around it while rewarding its employees and key stakeholders in a very creative way.
TRUE: As we approach this year’s Super Bowl, do you expect to see any major new innovations in the way brands leverage athletes and the event?
Augustine: I can’t speak necessarily to differences between this year’s Super Bowl and last year’s. What I will tell you is that the momentum leading up to Super Bowl 50 in San Francisco in 2016 is tremendous. We have companies already booking with us more than a year out to secure talent for the right campaigns and activations in San Francisco. It’s going to be a commemorative moment for the NFL. And the fact that it’s in the backyard of all these brilliant technology companies, which perhaps have never leveraged sports before, makes it even more exciting because I think they are seeing it as a great opportunity to connect.