Harish Krishnamachar (L), senior vice president and country head, World Sport Group (India) and Suman Srivastava (R), founder and innovation artist, Marketing Unplugged
What delivers better for a brand - riding on a superstar athlete or sportsperson at the peak of his/her career, or sponsoring a sports property they participate in? (In the backdrop of a Puma sponsoring Usain Bolt, versus an Adidas which is the official sportswear partner of London Olympics 2012)
HK: I don’t think one can pick one over the other. Different brands approach the two options differently. From the brands we deal with, we find that certain brands value association with events far more than association with individual sportspersons. There are some brands which are also culturally uncomfortable in dealing with individual sportspersons. The fact is, not everyone is a Usain Bolt or a Tendulkar. To get one of those superstars in their respective games is not an easy task. In our experience with Adidas, we have seen that they lean more towards the event kind of associations; as against a Nike, which is more aligned with individual athletes.
SS: In my view, both have become lazy ways of building a brand. Brands today need to create memorable consumer experiences. In order to create these experiences, they could use a sportsperson or a sporting event. But just using one of those does not guarantee value for a brand. Having said that, I believe that some brands like Heineken have done a superb job of owning a sporting event (in this case, the UEFA Champions League). On the other hand, some brands have used athletes very well. Good examples are Accenture with Tiger Woods (before his scandal) and Rolex with Roger Federer. In India, Pepsi has tended to use sports stars well.
Is there a particular scenario in which each of the above options delivers better for a brand?
HK: Yes, it would depend on what a brand’s individual requirements are. The approach has to do more with the way in which a brand approaches sponsorship as an option. There are brands like Emirates which are heavily into sport sponsorship, but not into celebrity endorsements. Reebok’s and Adidas’ approach in India has been very different. Reebok said they will spot these guys when they are just 15. So they bagged a whole bunch of them and put their logo on all their bats. The intent was to grow with them, keeping track of the successful ones and staying with them. Over the last few years, Nike has adopted that approach too.
SS: I think a sporting event works when you have something to launch. It could be a new brand, a new variant or even a new campaign. Vodafone’s Zoozoo campaign probably gained from the fact that it was launched during the IPL. An athlete works over a longer period of time for a brand.
Is brand fit more of a constraint in the case of celebrities than tournaments?
HK: Yes it is, given that there are personality and behavioural issues to deal with in the case of celebrities and both these are absent in the case of sporting events of acceptable standards.
SS: Brands like to build personalities for themselves. Associating with celebrities helps in this process. Tournaments may or may not have personalities. So actually the brand fit is easier with celebrities.
While sponsoring the games allows wider opportunity (to be seen) across the span of the tournament, the other allows the brand to be associated closely with the celebrity sportsperson. While evaluating RoI for both, should one calibrate the value of visibility from each differently?
HK: At a preliminary level, brands will use visibility as the benchmark for evaluating RoI, be it with individual sportspersons or sporting events. While this is the case in emerging markets, where brands evaluate on the basis of visibility, in evolved markets experience is a key parameter. Associating with an individual athlete allows fewer opportunities to create experience than events. Evolved clients, even in the Indian market, are now asking for things that the association can give beyond the visibility. The intensity of the association is far higher with individual sportspersons. Of course, there is a far greater downside as well. There is no bigger example of that downside than Tiger Woods.
SS: I think this is an outdated question. Visibility is not the key reason for such sponsorships. Most brands that do sponsor major events are already quite visible. The trick in getting an RoI has to be in how the brand uses its sponsorship to drive sales or customer engagement. A focused event with a celebrity may provide more value than hundreds of GRPs where just the logo is seen.
Does sponsoring a tournament while competitors sponsor some of the best athletes in it negatively impact the sponsorship of the tournament?
HK: In most international events, the way it is defined is that personal equipment is the right of the athlete, while everything else is the right of the event organiser. Brands that sponsor some of the top athletes tend to sponsor their teams as well. This was also true in the case of Usain Bolt, where Puma seemed to be a sponsor of a large part of the Jamaican contingent. By and large, all this points to the fact that this potential conflict is factored in. Both athletes and events are very effective marketing platforms; it’s up to the brands to choose which they own. The only caveat is that very large events tend to be infrequent – be it the Olympics or the soccer or cricket world cups. With athletes, you have the image rights for them round the clock.
SS: Well it certainly puts the two brands in competition. The one who does a better job of connecting with its customers will win. In the past one has seen examples of athlete sponsors winning out over tournament sponsors (Nike has been guilty of such event hijacking).