Synergy at CES Sports Forum: Tech for 2016

Last week, I joined 170,000 people descending on Las Vegas for the Consumer Electronics Show. The name is deceptive – this is a show about the new and next technology in all forms and sport (on and off the field) was playing its strongest game.

This was evidenced at the packed Sports Forum sponsored by Turner, attracting a stellar line-up of panelists including two commissioners (NBA and MLB), two NBA team owners (Mavericks and Kings), the CEO of Intel and even Shaquille O’Neal.

So what was getting the buzz? I’ve drawn out the main talking points below and in some instances set them in the context of our bespoke US Millennial & Sports engagement research (Synergy / IG / Cassandra Report – ‘Millennials, Sports & Sponsorship 2015′ – 3,145 sample in US).

1. Tech for tech sake is a waste of time

A general consensus across all speakers and attendees that whilst sport has been slightly behind the curve in relation to other forms of entertainment (film and music in particular), when it comes to harnessing tech to benefit fans it’s making a fast comeback.

Central to this is that with more Millennials coming to support teams and players via their friends and their social community than ever before, technology is becoming a new driver of tribalism that before came through family. Our research underlines this as 43% of Millennials state that the reason a sport is their favorite is because their friends are into it (compared to only 33% of Gen Xers).

Both the league Commissioners and team owners agreed the strength of social as not just a content driver to existing fans, but as a powerful data collection and educational tool for a whole new audience.

But tech for tech sake is a total waste of time and sponsors can burn money fast trying to jump on the latest innovation. As one brand CMO said – ‘we simply can’t try and answer all tech and platform needs of our consumers, because after we’ve spent months trying to find a solution the next big thing has already come along and our audience has shifted.’

So brands should choose their weapons carefully and invest in them properly.

2. Virtual Reality is the new TV

As weapons go, Virtual Reality is moving from stealth bomber to conventional warfare for brands and rightsholders in sport. One team owner described the potential impact of VR on sport over the next five years as ‘the same impact TV had over radio’.

The possibility to move it beyond simply an alternative at the event to commercial applications is already live. The Sacramento Kings, for example, have sold season tickets in their new arena by giving fans the chance to experience the view from their seat before walking courtside to interact with one of the star players.

With only 29% of Millennials relying on official team and league channels for information, brands should be looking at VR as deepening the story-telling potential of sports – beyond just a ‘be there’ experience which will be more the natural domain of the rightsholders and broadcasters. Also, any brands concerned that VR is potentially a solo experience should have seen the connected and simultaneous VR experience on the Samsung stand – a truly shared and shareable use of the technology.

3. E Sports is mainstream

The debate over whether or not it’s a sport is irrelevant – it’s the fastest growing pursuit amongst Millennials across the world and is truly borderless. As a brand, if you’re targeting a sub-35 age group and are not either in it or thinking about it you need to move fast. The E League was launched in a live match between two teams and it was standing room only in the arena – our research showed that 52% of Millennials are drawn to eSports because of the access the game allows them to both the players and 55% because it feels ‘innovative’ – this number is way higher than the ‘big four’.

It’s a passion that, due to its very nature, is perfectly ‘socially enabled’. And if you’re wondering if it’s a sport just ask the top competitors who are generally burnt out by 25 and practise up to 12 hours every day…

4. Social Enhancement of Live Sports

Mavericks owner and tech entrepreneur, Mark Cuban stated – ‘every one time someone looks down at their phone during a game in the arena we lose them’. This was focused on fans in the stadium and I believe that the opposite is true for fans watching in bars, at home on the move – brands that understand how to enhance the human dimension of sports – not replace it, can own a live moment when fans (especially Millennials) are connecting with each other more than ever.

Our research showed that a huge 53% of Millennials are second screening to show behind the scenes content of what THEY are doing, while they talk to their friends about the live game.

Beware the bright lights of innovation – the evidence is that on the whole a Millennial sports fan is after simple, quick ways to get & share a wide breadth of content not hugely immersive experiences and interaction / UGC.

In other words – always know your consumer.

But for those that have experienced the endless queues and traffic of Las Vegas during CES, last word goes to one of my taxi drivers…’these guys can invent the future but they can’t solve a traffic jam?’

Be Cool, Be First: Does the Quest for Original Activation Concepts Come at the Expense of What’s Right for the Brand?

All marketers are seeking that ‘first’, that innovative use of technology that is going to garner awards and make their brand, their agency, or themselves famous. In this quest for originality, however, there is the danger that new technology in our industry is being used purely for the sake of it – with very little strategic rationale for the brand involved.

At Synergy, we are of course tracking with interest the evolution of this technology, but the challenge we face week in, week out is to ensure that we are creating both innovative and effective sponsorship campaigns. We therefore recognise the importance of continuing to offer original thinking, but are keen to discourage the ‘it’s been done before (and is therefore not appropriate)’ attitude than can be prevalent in the industry.

We believe that it is not necessarily about winning the race to use any new technology – but instead ensuring that this tech is used appropriately to make sponsorship activations as authentic and impactful as possible.

So why are we so interested in correctly handling this balance between utilising new technology at both the right time – and also for the right reasons – in the first place? As sponsors increasingly look to reach Millennials, we know that these digital natives fully expect their interactions with brands to be grounded in technology, and are eager to try out new things (even if they can’t yet envisage how these forthcoming devices are going to influence their lives). The onus therefore lies with brands to attract and then engage with this audience through digital activity that makes their experiences both memorable and sharable. Clearly, for things to be memorable for Millennials, activations need to feel fresh and different, and this audience is less likely to share something that is starting to feel old hat – so timing remains a crucial consideration. The Fall/Winter 2014 Cassandra Report from Engine Group agency The Intelligence Group reiterates this: Millennials ‘want to be the first to do or share something, [and] they admire brands that take this approach too’.

To ensure that we are creating original activation concepts for the right reasons, two key questions need to be answered:

Does the technology being used…

• …play an authentic role for the brand?

• …make the experience better or solve a problem?

If the answer is yes, then our thoughts can turn to how we can create impactful and engaging experiences that are seamlessly grounded in this tech.

We wanted to share some examples of brands using emerging technology in the recent past in truly authentic and innovative ways (whilst not necessarily being first to leverage them) that have helped set the benchmark for the future.

3D PrintingCoca-Cola & EKOCYCLE Cube

Coca-Cola, in collaboration with, have invented a 3D printer that uses a cartridge made in part from recycled plastic bottles, to create an array of lifestyle products – with the aim of bringing 3D printing to the masses. This initiative clearly fits as part of Coca-Cola’s commitment to sustainability and also has the potential to make recycling relevant to a younger audience. It will be interesting to see, however, whether The Cube’s retail price of $1,199 really helps lead to the democratisation of 3D printing.

According to Cassandra, 72% of trendsetters have heard of 3D printing and are interested in this, and as this technology begins to reach the masses, it could provide a great solution for a sponsor looking to give away bespoke, branded merchandise to fans at sporting events, for example.

Internet of EverythingOptus Clever Buoy

Optus, the telecommunications company, wanted to show the breadth of their network coverage and solve a genuine problem in Australia – creating the world’s first shark-detecting ocean buoy. Sensing their movement using sonar, the buoys then send instant alerts to lifeguards via Optus satellites. ‘The Internet of Things’ has been widely discussed in recent years, but this is one of the best examples of a brand using this connected technology to solve a long-standing, real-world issue, as well as to highlight one of the company’s key infrastructure strengths.

From a sponsorship perspective, this technology could be naturally used by Optus or organisers in surfing competitions, alerting surfers (via smartwatches) of any hidden dangers in the deep.

It will be interesting to see if rightsholders and sponsors will begin to find a role for innovative examples of NPD such as this. Saracens, a leading Aviva Premiership rugby club, plans to assess real-time data around the impact of big hits on the rugby field, which is a great example of a rightsholder using new technology to address a genuine challenge facing their sport.

3D ScanningJohn Lewis and Monty’s Magical Toy Machine

John Lewis teamed up with Microsoft Advertising UK to produce an effective and emotive in-store activation that quite literally brought to life their Christmas 2014 TV ad. Using advanced 3D mapping technology, they gave children the chance to bring in their own soft toys and then watch them come to life in front of their very eyes, just as Monty the Penguin did. With this, John Lewis creatively connected an otherwise unrelated technology to deliver a genuine moment of wonder for children and parents alike.

50% of trendsetters have heard of image or facial recognition technology* and we have already seen a few nice examples of this technology being used by brands. Wouldn’t it be great to see this in a sporting experiential arena – anyone fancy shadow boxing with Floyd Mayweather?

Wearable TechVB Cricket Watch

Another great example from Australia – with Victoria Bitter using their sponsorship of the Australian cricket team to offer fans the world’s first ‘cricket watch’, a wearable timepiece that delivers live scores from the Aussie matches by pairing with a compatible smartphone. Supported by an on-pack consumer promotion and a multi-platform campaign, this is a really nice example of a sponsor improving the fan experience (and we all know how much the Aussies love their cricket) through the appropriate use of new technology and also generating widespread PR through this ‘first’.

Only 18% of trendsetters have currently heard of smartwatches and tried them out (The Cassandra Report Digital Fall/ Winter 2014), so this is a great example of a brand using technology first, but in a relevant and engaging way.

There is a school of thought that brands are taking a risk by using the latest technology before their target audience can fully appreciate it. Whilst this approach can bring the obvious benefit of a completely novel and fresh experience, it does raise the possibility that consumers will only associate certain technology with marketing campaigns, which in turn could bring a degree of cynicism.

We know that Millennials don’t like being ‘sold to’ and therefore, if new technology isn’t being used to genuinely improve an experience (or worse, seen as a poorly thought out gimmick), then this approach risks damaging both the brand and the tech in question. This is a criticism that has been levelled by some at the Oculus Rift headset – and despite a few interesting activations involving this specific hardware – it is fair to say that we’re yet to see a game-changing execution using this equipment. With the big money purchase of the company by Facebook and the news that they are to launch a consumer product this year, however, it’s likely to be a case of when, rather than if.

There’s no question that the pace of technological innovation will continue to create new opportunities for sponsors – but rather than racing to be first, the marketing challenge for brands remains as it always has been: to reach their target audience with key messages in a relevant and authentic way.

The challenge for how sponsors use new technology should mirror how they approach key strategic considerations: it’s not just about white space, but right space; not just real time, but right time – in terms of tech, think less first-mover and more right-mover advantage.

Matt’s blog comes from Synergy’s Now, New & Next sponsorship outlook for 2015, which can be viewed in full here.

Millennial Movie Fans: The Battle of the Five Armies

It’s a time of war.

Five forces, locked in bloody conflict, light against dark, in a fight to the death. Old adversaries clash in bitter skirmishes, as fresh rivals reveal new fronts to a timeworn battlefield. All the while, uneasy alliances are forged in the face of the common foe: malevolent and intangible, a shadowy presence hiding in plain sight, its bitter poison laying waste to the very earth itself.

It’s an ancient battle for a very modern prize: the love (and lucre) of the Millennial movie-watcher.

An appropriately dramatic analogy, perhaps, but the point is still clear: Studios, Multiplexes, Streamers (think Netflix and the like) and Brands are facing up against an army of Pirates in a conflict set to shape the future of film. So now, with the battle lines drawn for 2015, how can brands best prepare themselves to strike a telling blow in the war for Millennial film fans over the coming year?

With this question in mind, it’s worth considering the relatively unprecedented context presented by 2015: in cinematic terms, this could well be the single biggest year the industry has ever seen.

Not one, but three billion-dollar movies will be hitting screens in the coming 12 months. In May, we have Avengers: Age of Ultron – sequel to the third most successful movie of all time ($1.5bn worldwide gross, according to Box Office Mojo); Spectre, the follow-up to Skyfall (at $1.1bn, Bond’s biggest ever outing), appears in November; and that’s not forgetting a small production in December by the name of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the latest episode in the $4.2bn box office mega-franchise.

On top of that, in sequel terms, we’ll see the conclusion to The Hunger Games (the preceding movie having made $695m worldwide), Jurassic World, Ted 2, Mission: Impossible 5, Furious 7 and Magic Mike XXL. When you add in Pixar’s Inside Out, Josh Trank’s reboot of comic book The Fantastic Four and – ahem – Fifty Shades of Grey, there’s something in there for just about everyone.

So where does this leave Millennials? After all, a trip to the cinema represents only a single touchpoint with Film as a passion point…and an expensive one at that. With the average price of a cinema ticket in the UK now £6.53 (a 26% hike since 2007, with London seats topping £13) and US tickets hovering around the $8 mark, it’s not hard to see why a trip to the movies is becoming less of an impulse decision. In 2014, research published by Nielsen in America identified a 15% drop in attendances from the previous year amongst 12-24s.

The average Millennial’s world is fast-paced and relentless. Whether picking up emails from work or endlessly checking feeds for social currency and connections, they are seldom ‘off’. For the Multiplexes, this creates an interesting and relatively unique dilemma: while the cinema is considered by Millennials as one of the last places where they can still genuinely disengage from life, attendances amongst this group are still declining.

Time-poor, experience-rich

With the average length of the year’s highest-grossing movies up from 118.4 minutes in 1992 to 141.6 minutes in 2012 – not counting the incremental half hour of adverts and trailers – starved of smartphones and live pausing, Millennials need to commit or quit when considering a trip to the cinema.

What’s more, it’s fair to say that the cinematic experience itself at the Multiplex is generally not up to par for the young, free and single Millennials. As born multitaskers and social animals, there’s an expectation that a night out offers more than just silent contemplation of an IMAX screen. Look at the popularity of Secret Cinema, the immersive movie experience encompassing themed costumes, food and event production, whose 2014 UK screenings of Back to the Future saw 17,000 of the available 66,000 tickets sell out in under five minutes. There’s even proven to be an audience for East London’s Hot Tub Cinema pop-up events, with the Hot Tub Time Machine 2 surely a shoo-in as content for screenings this year.

Similarly, more ‘regular’ viewing experiences are available for the Millennial multitasker, with the Electric, the Everyman chain and the Roxy Bar and Screen leading the charge in London in terms of luxury and/or homely seating, refreshments and even mid-movie debate. Grab a beer and order some food; make a night of it; feel sociable and connected.

While brands may struggle to have an impact on the long-term Multiplex experience itself, there may be a mindset shift occurring here, with Cineworld’s acquisition of the independent Picturehouse chain in 2012 a conscious (albeit controversial) move to recognise and grow both brands in tandem.

The question is, what can brands learn from the independents that they could take to a national level in partnership with Multiplexes? One of London’s most popular independent theatres, The Prince Charles Cinema, a stone’s throw from Leicester Square’s Empire, ODEON and Vue, provides a few clues as to how sponsors might help the chains get a little more creative, whilst engaging relevantly with Millennial audiences.

Double-bills, seasonal themes, franchise marathons, fancy dress evenings – even sing-along events (Frozen being the spectacle du jour) – you name it, the PCC could be the ultimate incubator when it comes to replicable in-theatre ‘moments’.

All you can eat content

Whether the big chains like it or not, the Millennial perception of acceptable pricing policy is changing. The Streamers have it right: at £5.99/$8.00 per month, Netflix/Amazon/Hulu have this audience wrapped up, feeding the Millennial binge-watcher a constant supply of on-demand content, all for a low (or, at least, acceptable) monthly charge. So why haven’t the Multiplexes adopted the same approach to generating a regular subscriber base? To date, of the UK’s major chains, only Cineworld offers this with its Unlimited card, £16.40 granting you as many screenings as you can fit into a month.

Stateside, the cross-chain MoviePass subscription service lets users go to a film a day for $35, a ‘premium’ version of which (think 3D and IMAX showings, not just standard 2D) AMC – the second biggest Multiplex in Northern America – is also now trialling.

The question is, if the Multiplexes aren’t offering this themselves, then how could a sponsor make this happen? And we’re not necessarily talking for free: Orange Wednesdays – arguably the biggest thing to happen in cinemas in the past 10 years – was essentially a customer BOGOF. With EE now having walked away from the offer, perhaps a reboot is in order (this is the cinema, after all), especially now that Aleksandr Meerkat and chums are now involved.

How about adding a premium bolt-on to your monthly mobile phone tariff and then using your NFC-enabled smartphone to claim tickets as often as you like, every month?

I’d buy that for a dollar (or even twenty).

Instant gratification

Another area where the big boys – in this instance, the Studios – could learn from the Streamers, is in how they deploy Video on Demand (VOD). The hacking of Sony Pictures’ systems in late 2014 – their very own Nightmare Before Christmas – actually went some way to demonstrating that whilst physical distribution in theatres is critical, it’s not essential.

Following the decision (by the major cinema chains, rather than the studio) to pull the release of the North Korea-baiting comedy The Interview, Sony Pictures finally released the movie as VOD content, making $15m in the process. Sure, this is still short of the reported $44m production budget, but (if you believe the financial documents released by the hackers) just about covered stars Seth Rogen and James Franco’s fee.

The controversy of this particular film aside, from a sponsorship perspective, the lack of a physical presence for a movie in theatres presents an opportunity for the right brand to create the necessary real-world touchpoint for consumers. Whether through Coke Zero’s excellent ‘Unlock the 007 in you’ Skyfall tie-in, or more standard marketing real estate, sponsors have the unique ability to meet Millennials half-way, and bring them closer to the movie itself.

Another related consideration for brands is that of simultaneous cross-platform release schedules. This is not a new phenomenon, with examples of ‘opening days’ synchronised across multiple media stretching back at least a decade, from such film-makers as Steven Soderbergh and, more recently, Ben Wheatley. Although unlikely to ever replace the release model for the summer blockbuster – where even the most extravagantly proportioned household flatscreen will fail to do justice to the scale and seat-juddering spectacle of a good movie theatre set-up – the provision of both immediacy of content and a choice in how to view it are drivers for Millennials across the globe. This would likely also prove popular for Gen Xers with childcare issues…

How about a sponsor-driven release day, with loyal customers or promotion winners provided unique access to either a VOD stream, DVD or viewing party – rather than just the typical activation of a local premiere we’ve come to expect? The trick is realigning the Studio- Multiplex licence agreement, which generally provides a 3-month exclusivity period to the theatres before movies can be distributed as hard copies or as digital pay-per-view content.

Any sponsors wanting to demonstrate how much they ‘get’ the Millennial film fan would also do well to consider supporting lower budget movies through this instant medium. With the blockbusters often hogging screen time at the Multiplexes, the opportunity for brands to use existing VOD technologies to drive audiences to the best new, yet otherwise unheralded films may help rather than hinder some of these productions. IMDB’s #1 rated movie amongst users, Frank Darabont’s The Shawshank Redemption, was almost completely overlooked when on general release, with only VHS bringing it into the homes and hearts of millions across the world. What if yours was the brand that had first said ‘Welcome to Shawshank’, and facilitated bringing a masterpiece to the masses?

If you love something, give it away…or, more likely, share it

It’s the ultimate double-edged sword for the industry.

Avatar, the most successful film of all time ($2.87bn worldwide gross), is also the most pirated (hitting 21 million individual downloads as far back as 2011) – demonstrating a curious co-existence and begging the question of which came first.

Whilst it’s often digitally savvy, legally unfazed Millennials who help perpetuate online piracy by viewing and distributing studio content, there’s little doubt that sharing is critical to the movie marketing ecosystem.

Without word-of-mouth recommendations, film forum debate and the excited re-posting of trailers and outtakes, there would be no cult classics or sleeper hits, and viral teaser campaigns for movies such as The Dark Knight or X-Men: Days of Future Past would fall flat.

Encouraging Millennials to share what you want about a movie (rather than just its BitTorrent download address) is the key for studios. This is something that the team at our sister agency Trailer Park know all about. By building excitement about the Multiplex experience, they maximise their profits, and by drawing attention to the must-see lower-budget films – which perhaps don’t get so much airtime on general release – even the little guys get to benefit.It only takes a short flick through Twitter, Facebook or Reddit to discover a wealth of talented individuals lovingly creating their own take on the films that touch them. From alternative homage posters, brain-bending FullMovieGIFs and the niche but nifty 8-Bit Cinema animations – the democratisation of design has enabled credible, cool fan-made marketing campaigns to live and breathe across the social networks.Marketers that could appropriately leverage the creativity of the talented masses to deliver genuinely shareable content or relevance to the Millennial audience will win here.

As we enter into 2015 proper, for the big players in film the audiences have never been more empowered, and the stakes have never been higher. One thing is clear, however: in the Battle of the Five Armies, it’s the Brands – in particular, the sponsors of film – that have a genuine opportunity to help raise the standards for the conflict ahead.

It’s showtime…

Jonathan’s blog comes from Synergy’s Now, New & Next sponsorship outlook for 2015, which can be viewed in full here.