Blog

Pogba + United + adidas – The perfect marketing match?

An announcement under the hashtag #Pogback at 12.30am signalled Paul Pogba’s return to Manchester United after four years at Juventus. The boy who left England with bags of potential has come back as a man to finish what he started with his first senior club.Whilst Jose Mourinho has signed Pogba for purely footballing reasons, it’s clear the club, adidas and the player himself will all benefit commercially from this new partnership. From a marketing perspective it seems to be the perfect match.One of the biggest personalities and most exciting young players in the game has joined the biggest club in the world, which is just starting its second season with kit supplier adidas, for whom Pogba is already a key ambassador.

Signing up Pogba on a £31m 10-year deal earlier this year has helped adidas create a fresh, new look that capitalises on the Frenchman’s unique style, individualism, flamboyant nature and flashy personality. He has been the figurehead of the brand’s #FirstNeverFollows campaign, a brand position that builds on the previous #ThereWillBeHaters activation and mixes football, fashion and music. The aim of this is to appeal to the younger audience, the next wave of potential adidas consumers, and win them over from newer brands like Under Armour and New Balance, who are challenging the more established giants.

Pogba gives adidas a point of difference over its rivals, such as Nike, who were also competing for his signature. He wasn’t signed just as a face to shift trainers, but as a catalyst to help change the nature of adidas’ football marketing…to make his mark on the brand itself.

From United’s viewpoint, Pogba and adidas also help the club reach a younger audience, an audience that may be swaying towards supporting Manchester City, Real Madrid, FC Barcelona or another of Europe’s big clubs.

Pogba will be the face of both United and adidas for years to come. He hasn’t returned to Old Trafford for just one or two seasons; he will surely be there for a significant proportion of his career. He represents the new United, forging a new identity in the post Sir Alex Ferguson, era under the leadership of Mourinho.

Adidas, like other sponsors, do not get a say in the club’s transfer activity (although they may have had a quiet word in Ed Woodward’s ear), but for them shirt sales are clearly critical. Aligning one of their big ambassadors with one of their biggest clubs (alongside Real Madrid) will have been music to the ears of adidas, as the ‘POGBA 6’ United shirts start flying off racks around the world.

One of the reasons adidas teamed up with United in the first place is because the club has a huge fan base in the US and Asia, both target markets for the German sports brand. Pogba will help to gain cut-through in those markets.The French midfielder’s social channels have more than 13m followers. For United, this offers an opportunity a reach a new audience; whilst for Pogba, joining the Red Devils will no doubt see this figure grow and grow, as has happened with other recent arrivals to the club – a win-win. And adidas can utilise this massive reach to push out branded content and messaging to his adoring fans.This branded content played a role in the announcement of Pogba’s capture. Adidas teamed up with UK grime artist Stormzy to record a short piece of music-focused film featuring Pogba that matches the #FirstNeverFollows theme, announcing the player’s arrival at United. We are likely to see more dual-branded content like this appear as adidas and United push Pogba to the front of their marketing activity and his global appeal spirals skyward.

Brand Murray Is Just Beginning

Arguably sport always has been, and always will be, associated with stars. Sportspeople of incredible athletic ability make the impossible appear effortless, creating moments of magic that give fans the chance to utter the phrase “I was there”. For an athlete to be held in this rarefied bracket of superstars can bring global fame and vast financial reward, but also a burden of expectation not just from their own fans, but the sports they bestride.

The Next Stage

An athlete who must surely now be considered within this group is Wimbledon Champion Andy Murray. Three years since his first win, Murray once again captured the title that he covets most, placing him alongside esteemed double Wimbledon winners such as Stefan Edberg and Rafael Nadal. The win also topped off an incredible year for Murray. Marriage to his long-term girlfriend, guiding Great Britain to a Davis Cup win and becoming a father has brought about a slow but noticeable transformation of brand Murray. His growing maturity matched with a change in perception among even the most casual of tennis fans offers him the perfect opportunity to take his brand even further as he moves into the next stage of his career.

Star Power

According to London School of Marketing’s 2015 sport power list, Murray ranked in 16th place. Not bad, but when considered alongside his fellow male players, Rafael Nadal (8th) Novak Djokovic (7th) and Roger Federer (1st), there appears to be some room left to grow. Federer’s continued brilliance away from the court is in contrast to his slowly diminishing powers on it. Without a Grand Slam win for four years, Federer’s ‘RF’ brand remains worn by more than just a few of the paying crowd on centre court. His ability to show a side of his personality that resonates with sponsors without a link to the court has helped prolong his marketability and it’s a path that Murray has already started to tread.

Although he counts Under Armour and Head as his on-court equipment partners, Murray’s partnership with Standard Life represents a deal that looks to work with some of the less athletic aspects of Murray’s character and is undoubtedly contributing to a better understanding of the man behind the racket. Yet it’s imperative that the partnership works both ways, with a set of shared traits that can be projected to a targeted audience for the benefit of both sponsor and athlete.

Careful cultivation of these traits can truly transform reputations and Standard Life’s Master Your Dreams film series is a perfect example of the process at work. The films explore a side of Andy Murray that isn’t well-known, helping the audience to see a new thread in the Murray story and one that Standard Life applies to its own organisation. From the meticulous preparations of Andy’s childhood, to meeting his own sporting heroes, viewers have shown a willingness to engage with the films, sharing their changing perceptions and even thanking Standard Life for providing the opportunity for them do so.

Standard Life’s willingness to look beyond the common narrative and work with a different side of brand Murray not only helps them stand out from the crowd but supports their own story, not something every sponsorship or indeed athlete, has the ability to do. The challenge therefore is two-fold, first to identify an athlete whose own brand, ambitions and athletic performance complements that of a sponsor and secondly (and far more challenging) is to select the the correct aspect of an athlete’s story to tell.

Executed properly the rewards are clear for all to see, both on and off the court.

Heart Over Head: Spotlight turns on sponsors after Sharapova ban

In the 48 hours following the news that Maria Sharapova has been banned for two years for taking banned substance Meldonium, the spotlight has invariably shifted to her sponsors to see their reaction.

Many would have expected Nike, Head and Evian to pull the plug on their sponsorship deals with the former world No.1, but all three have done quite the opposite. Nike announced it will be continuing to partner with Sharapova, citing that she did not dope intentionally and is appealing the ban. Originally Nike had suspended its relationship with the Russian pending the investigation.

Evian, likewise, had first said it would follow the investigation closely before making a decision, but has now come out in full support of Sharapova and will continue to work with her despite the ban.

Head, though, took things a step further – a big and controversial step further – by challenging the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and the International Tennis Federation (ITF). Head has claimed that the ban was based on WADA’s flawed process and was therefore a flawed decision, and so the brand will be sticking by Sharapova and continuing its sponsorship.

Quite why a tennis racket manufacturer is challenging WADA’s global drugs policy is baffling. What expertise does Head have to make such a criticism of WADA and doping in sport? A well-advised sponsor would steer clear of such a move and comment only on its relationship with the athlete, certainly not taking on a governing body that is trying to keep the sport clean and fair.

This follows the original statement Head released back in March when the failed drugs test first arose in which the company nailed its colours to the mast and came out in support of Sharapova without knowing all the facts or what the final outcome of the independent investigation would be. This did not sit well with one of its biggest athletes, Andy Murray, who openly criticised Head’s position in supporting Sharapova.

Sharapova is a Head ambassador

At the same time, another Sharapova’s sponsors, Tag Heuer, took the non-emotional route and put loyalty to one side by announcing it was suspending renewal talks and cutting its ties with the tainted tennis star. Tag has reaffirmed this stance and said it is not in a hurry to discuss any new contract, signalling the partnership will wind down

Porsche took a similar approach to Nike in suspending all planned activity with the former Wimbledon champion and has now said it will hold back final judgement until the outcome of the appeal is known.

Avon sensibly chose to remain silent back in March, but has now confirmed the sponsorship will expire at the end of the current contract without renewal, pointing at a limited engagement window for activity being the reason as opposed to the doping situation.

The Nike positioning is interesting when you look at the business value and the brand’s reputation. Supporting an athlete banned for doping damages the reputation of the brand, although a precedent was set by Nike’s renewed support of two-time drugs cheat Justin Gatlin. If there is a huge business value attached to the athlete that outweighs the reputational risk in the long-term then you could understand Nike supporting Sharapova. However, she is approaching the end of her career, especially by the time she can return to the court, and when put alongside the other stars on Nike’s books she no longer has the revenue pulling power.

We now await the verdict of Sharapova’s appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport and to see what the sponsors do next. Will Murray and other top stars with Head or Nike partnerships speak out publicly against Head challenging WADA or Nike sticking by Sharapova?

Watch this Space: Jersey Sponsorship in the US

In this year’s NBA All Stars game in Toronto, there was one towering difference on the court. It had nothing to do with what the players were doing with the ball, but everything to do with what they were wearing. On their jerseys, for the first time, there was a brand logo – Kia.
Let’s put this in proportion: at 3.25 inches by 1.6 inches it’s barely noticeable in comparison with the logos on MLS or European sports jerseys, but it’s the barrier it crosses that’s significant. There can be no doubt that this is the NBA putting feelers out for what Commissioner Adam Silver talked about back in 2014 when he said: “We know what the value is to advertisers…to be able to show fans in-game branding.”

The math is simple – the average MLS jersey goes for around $3–3.5m dollars a year, but for commercial departments from the leading “big four league” teams in the US, I would imagine that there have been some envious glances across the pond to Manchester United’s deal with American car company Chevrolet at $75m a year.

Whilst the NBA have been joined by the NHL (whose Commissioner described jersey sponsorship as “coming and happening”), the MLB and NFL have been certainly more lukewarm. There are obvious logistical issues around it.

First, with a league’s collective bargaining agreements there needs to be consensus and balance as to whether it’s sold centrally or as per the European sports model, team by team. And secondly, the objection of broadcasters concerned about potential conflict and lost revenue.

The real question here is not whether this will indeed happen in the USA (I believe it’s inevitable over the next few years in NBA and NHL, at the very least), but rather whether it will impact negatively for consumers. And moreover, will brands here in America learn the lessons from the decades of good, bad and ugly jersey sponsorships in the past to influence the future?

So do consumers care…and, in particular, the Millennial consumer?

At Synergy, we’ve long been frustrated by the lack of real understanding and insight on the way Millennials engage with and view sports – both now and in the future. There are countless myths that have been built across the demographic, some of which are wrong and many of which can skew the way brands and rightsholders build campaigns. At the end of 2015, we undertook a bespoke and comprehensive piece of research with our sister agency, The Intelligence Group, around both Millennial and Generation X attitudes towards sports, sponsors and the future of sports engagement, with findings featured throughout Now, New & Next 2016.

The survey (3,145 consumers in America with 66% 18–34-year-olds and 34% 35–54-year-olds) specifically examined the potential impact of jersey sponsorship among the audience.

In short – they don’t see it as an issue. The rise of European soccer, MLS and WNBA has made jersey logos a more acceptable part of the viewing experience for the Millennial sports fan. The research highlights that 27% of Millennials think jersey sponsorship is “very appropriate” (higher than Gen Xers), whilst, tellingly, more Gen Xers than Millennials think it’s better for brands to be in the ad break or break bumpers.

History also shows that team success soon overcomes fans’ commercial objections. FC Barcelona – whose motto is famously “More than a Club” – held out for decades against commercial shirt sponsorship by featuring Unicef on the front of their jersey (at no charge), before replacing the global charity with sponsorship from the Qatar Foundation for a then record $40m a year.

Whilst there was a clear media backlash, it didn’t last long when a team with significantly increased resources went on to lift the UEFA Champions League. So if it helps your team produce a great spectacle, most fans soon overlook the logo.

Critically, fans soon discover that a brand appearing on their shirt will not affect their “fanship.” Indeed, more than being just a benign presence, fans may even come to see a jersey sponsor as a positive force for good, with the brand actively enhancing this very fanship. Another reason why this front-and-center asset can be so powerful.

As a jersey sponsor you have a responsibility, since your logo becomes part of the history of the team. Famous jerseys down the ages of European sports are identifiable due to the brand logo on the front of them – the brand locked forever, in the very midst of that trophy-lifting moment. The same applied off the pitch, where through the replica shirt market, fans of all ages wear your brand on a daily basis.

You cannot be edited out – be that in the live moment, or the subsequent media coverage: your brand is indelibly stencilled into that moment of history (for good or bad).

This responsibility means that you must understand and tap into the players, the fans, the culture and the tone of the team.

Lessons Learned for the Future

So what lessons can brands considering jersey sponsorship here in the US learn to ensure this doesn’t become just a glorified media buy?

1 UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL
Jersey sponsorship has always been the closest you can get to being in the action as a brand. New tech can only help this to literally get up close and personal with your team and your favourite players. At the 2016 CES Sports Forum, virtual reality was talked about by one team owner as “what TV was to radio” – imagine the creative capacity for VR technology being able to take fans into the action courtesy of the jersey sponsor.

2 IN-GAME, EVERYWHERE
Being at the heart of the action means being at the heart of the live moment, and research shows that Millennials notice brands in-game more than anywhere else. As a jersey sponsor you need to ensure you contractually own the live moment by having access to your team’s official social media feeds in order to feed the consumers’ desire for in-play, shareable content that can enhance their fanship.

3 CONNECT WITH THE PLAYERS TO RESONATE RICHLY
Get the players onside and fast, as they’re the living embodiment and running billboard for your brand. This is what can make the activation of a shirt sponsorship both easy (as you don’t need to shoehorn your brand into the situation) but also dangerous (you may not want your brand involved in certain off-court exchanges).

Again, with players controlling their own IP and the restrictive contracts they can have with teams in the US on its usage, brands need to be savvy enough to work in harmony with the players. Additional agreements with them are a must, especially in relation to their social feeds. Take, for example, the starting line-up for the Cleveland Cavaliers, which has a combined Twitter and Facebook following of 58m, versus the team’s official feeds of just over 5m.

LeBron’s Twitter following alone is nearly as big as that of all the other teams in the league combined.

4 DISRUPTIVE THINKING PAYS
Don’t be afraid to innovate or have fun with it – when Intel signed a jersey deal with FC Barcelona they literally turned the traditional model inside out by putting their Intel branding on the inside of the jersey. Some brands have handed over the space to a charity that they back for key matches – something that usually attracts positive sentiment.

5 THINK LOCAL AND ACT GLOBAL
The geographic activation restrictions of most US league deals ensure that the jersey sponsor would need to keep home fences mended, but the real potential for the leading teams would be the global potential. It’s no accident that leading UK soccer clubs Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea are sponsored by Chevrolet, Standard Chartered and Yokohama respectively – all brands targeting a global audience. Chevrolet don’t even sell vehicles in the UK.

Jersey sponsorship will happen here in the US, and fans will accept it. Leagues and brands, however, must look past the jersey as simply prime estate, instead seeing it as a chance to help share the very beating heart of the team.

Respect this, enhance it and tap into the fan culture, and it’s among the most powerful assets in a sponsorship arsenal. Get it wrong and it’s an expensive – and very public – mistake.

This blog comes from Synergy’s Now, New & Next sponsorship and entertainment outlook for 2016, which can be viewed in full here.

The Endorsement Olympics: Brands’ London 2012 GB Athlete Strategies Analysed (INFOGRAPHIC)

With Team GB's first gold medals won, national attention is naturally focused on GB's Olympians. So this seems like the perfect time to reveal our analysis of brands' GB athlete endorsement strategies, and to unveil our latest Synergy infographic - Synfographic - to the purpose.

We've looked at a group of 45 brands using current and former Olympians and Paralympians. The group comprises:

- Global and domestic sponsors of London 2012

- Major GB sport sponsors which aren't London 2012 sponsors

- Other non-sponsor brands leveraging athletes in their marcomms

This revealed a total of 404 individual agreements and, if taking into consideration athletes such as Jessica Ennis or Louis Smith who have multiple sponsorship deals, endorsement of 267 unique individuals.

It is worth noting that whilst we have factored in Lloyds TSB’s support of athletes across GB via the organisation’s Local Heroes programme, the figure of 404 agreements does not take these numbers into account. Similarly, neither do the figures quoted incorporate Visa’s sponsorship of the Team 2012 programme. Both these programmes are based on the brands creating or sponsoring group athlete support systems, whereas we wanted to analyse brands' strategies for individual endorsements - brands that have taken on the challenge (and the risks) onus of selecting, contracting and activating individuals, many several years ago, as part of their London 2012 campaigns.

Risk versus reward: over half of the endorsed athletes have qualified for Team GB and Paralympics GB.

Whilst you may not be surprised at the dominance of athletics amongst endorsees, the Synfographic does demonstrate that there’s a healthy range of sports sitting beyond the usual suspects, reflecting the diversity of the Olympics and Paralympics.

Men's deals outnumber women's by 234 to 170, but the two most popular individuals for sponsors are both women -  Victoria Pendleton and Jessica Ennis. The two most popular men? Louis Smith and Sir Chris Hoy.

Looking at the brands, it's striking that the seven Tier 1 London 2012 partners are the heaviest endorsers, with 244 agreements in total, an average of 30 per partner, massively outnumbering any other sponsorship tier. Interestingly, non-sponsor brands are the next biggest endorsers, with 91 deals in total, despite the IOC Charter's Rule 40 restricting leverage of these individuals during Games-time, which has recently been challenged by several US athletes.

It's also good to see that there are deals with 52 Paralympians - compared with 215 with Olympians - reflecting both brands' support for the Paralympics and to integrate Paralympians into their London 2012 activity.

One of the major successes in terms of athlete selection has been BMW’s London 2012 Performance Team*. This is a programme that began with the BMW UK's central sponsorship of 27 athletes, both past and present, and evolved into a dealer-by-dealer support system for local London 2012 hopefuls. The result: BMW and MINI athletes now form 11% of the entirety of Team GB.

The main questions now are which sponsor has backed the most winners, and who'll be the post-Games winners in the endorsement stakes. After yesterday's heroics and today's headlines, Bradley Wiggins is sure to be at the forefront. Let's hope that Team GB and Paralympics GB produce many more over the next month or so.

* Full disclosure: Synergy is BMW UK's London 2012 agency