The role of talent in sponsorship

The role of talent in sponsorship – and how brands were ahead of the curve at the Rio Olympics by David Peters Managing Director MKTG
The Olympics and Paralympics are now over and the 11,000 plus athletes provided a rich and fertile ground from which to identify the next big star, or the face of brand campaigns. Even if the hyperbole in London was not quite at the same level it was four years ago, when we played host to the Games ourselves, it was certainly still a month of high octane competition and emotion – energies which can be extended by choosing the right ambassador who brings back special memories to your audience.
It’s worth considering, before we get down to details, how the London Games impacted major brands, and the celebrity status of some of the athletes as a result. Jessica Ennis-Hill was an undisputed star, with her performance in the final discipline, (the 800m) cementing her heptathlon gold and in the process becoming one of the most memorable nights of the summer. She set a series of personal bests while running away (quite literally) with the gold, and lived up to her pre-Games hype as one of the faces to watch. Equally, Mo Farah became further cemented in the British consciousness with his 5,000m and 10,000m wins, accompanied by the trademark broad grin and arched-arm celebrations.
Both have gone on to lucrative and recognisable ambassadorial campaigns – Jessica Ennis-Hill as the face of Santander, and Mo Farah as the face of healthy eating brand Quorn. But why have these partnerships worked so well? Ennis-Hill is attractive to sponsors on a variety of fronts
She’s young, successful and aspirational and also “normal” with a young family of her own which she juggles with her professional life as an athlete. As a female athlete she brings a lot of value to the Santander brand …a recent survey conducted by MKTG showed the increasing importance of women as decision makers for a wide variety of household purchases including financial services. The survey revealed that 76% of brands feel that the importance of women as the buying decision maker is often missed when reviewing the audience. Secondly the survey also showed that the public trust women more than men and trust is an attribute valued by brands, especially if you are a bank – an important consideration when you think about Ennis-Hill’s role being associated with Santander.
Vegetarian Farah on the other hand, with his growing family, hits the mark in terms of healthy eating while having fun – Quorn doesn’t have to be bland and boring and the adverts he stars in reflect this. Both Farah and Ennis-Hill are also perceived as more accessible than some other sporting superstars – they’re more grounded than some of the cash-laden Premiership footballers
So how do you go about identifying an ambassador, and what do you look for? What should you have kept an eye out for throughout the Olympics so you can get in early and bring them on board before their stock rises further and their fee accordingly? Firstly, you need to identify the ambassador which matches your audience and their need, not just the sport. By this we mean that you should consider which athlete embodies the values your audience aspires to – be that personal success, the underdog beating the odds, long term dominance of a sport; what does your choice of ambassador say about your brand? Which stars can associate purely with ‘health and wellbeing’ and which might be intrinsically tied to their sport, in the same way as Usain Bolt is aligned heavily to speed, over and above the regime which keeps him at the top of his game, and the ideal brand ambassador for Virgin Media.
This is where MKTG’s proprietary Ambassador Ranking Model (ARM) comes into play. ARM is built around the following criteria;

  • The relevance of the ambassador to the brand’s target market, brands values and geographic reach
  • The profile of the ambassador in terms of recognisability, personality and track record and how they can be used commercially. This also includes their current media profiles particularly social media reach and content
  • How easy are they to work with and whether they are available for the key times of the campaign.

Increasingly in this arena it’s important to consider how the whole dynamic has shifted in terms of public access and engagement with celebrities and sports stars. To say social media platforms have disrupted this relationship would be an understatement; it’s revolutionised the experience people have from their stars and how they can talk to them, listen in to their lives, and see what they’re doing daily, and hourly. This has built phenomenal bonds between fans and their idols, nearly as close as a one to one relationship, and when considering who you want your ambassador to be, you should consider their social media profile and behaviour. Do you want someone who replies to every message? what are the risks and pitfalls of such an always-on ambassador? – or do you want someone distanced, and again, what are the risks of this; will it seem fake endorsement if they don’t talk to their audience? Similarly, what they are saying in the online space also needs to be considered…as whilst contentious comments may be suitable for some brands that have a more provocative and edgier profile, for other brands this would be an absolute no no.
This connection of consumers to superstars has revolutionised the marketplace but has brought its challenges to ambassadorial roles as social media activity and expectations have to be weighted into contracts; yet such platforms are – by their very nature – fluid and unpredictable. Getting the right ambassador, with the right approach to social platforms is thus critical.
Those newbies competing at Rio are likely to have far smaller profiles and followings than established mainstays of the athletics world, and when considering who might be the next up-and-coming talent to front your campaign, take a look at how they behave online and whether they’re, by nature, risk-averse, or risqué. Bear in mind many might not have had professional training or conduct guidance around how to act on their own platforms and you may well get an early insight into what bad habits need addressing before you embark on a sponsorship campaign.
As with London 2012, the Rio Games are likely to be remembered for a long time due to the multiple platforms people are sharing their memories on, and the manner in which news and sports is now reported. This can create celebrities overnight, and bring out inspirational stories – be they from adversity to global success, or simply long term dominance of a sport. It’s crucial that you keep an eye on everyone competing to identify your next sporting ambassador – but that you are rigorous in analysing who is the right fit to represent a brand in the long term, over and above the short, and you’re not afraid to ask difficult questions before making your decision.