The pace of change continues unabated, so there is no small irony in our appetite to accurately predict the future. Another New Year delivers another seasonal avalanche of trends and forecasts, but companies are reminded of a powerful consumer truth: people care much more about what you do rather than what you say.
Look no further than the world of sport to bring this sharply into focus. Fans demand action and results above words and predictions. The industry’s commercial growth is testimony to the importance it places on rapidly adapting to change (agility); whilst at the same time acknowledging this change - and the opportunity change brings - often requires expertise from outside of its own center of excellence (integration).
Maybe this is why sport has such a magnetic effect on companies seeking a meaningful association to drive business: the ability for brands to live in the moment; connecting in a relevant way; ‘doing’ rather than ‘saying’; knowing that sponsorship and brand2brand partnerships are often a catalyst for other marketing activities: from health and wellness, tech and digital; to reputation management and employee communications.
So forget hunch and hypothesis; this will be the reality of 2015 and there’s something in it for everyone.
1) Wearable Tech goes ‘mass’
The ‘internet of things’… that era is now. Online and offline (physical and digital) is all a blur. According to Cisco, around 13 billion products are currently wired up, with more and more objects about to get connected. Brands like FitBit have helped feed the public’s obsession for fitness tracking but few have really gone mass market. More sophisticated products are coming in 2015, with a move from pure fitness and fun to advanced health monitoring. So get ready for the Apple Watch and updates to Google Glasses. The health and wellbeing agenda is about to get another techno make-over.
2) Social Streaming & Messaging App Mania
Sponsors will demand (rather than encourage) rights holders to enable digital amplification of stadia/arena based events, concerts and shows via live online streaming – often with interactive strands to connect the cyber crowd to the live action. Tri-partite deals between rights holders, broadcasters and sponsors will accelerate the volume of video streaming services, plus social clip sharing and messaging apps that continue to close the gap between physical and virtual attendance.
3) Wi-Fi stadiums & truly connected fans
Multi-screen home entertainment centres; bigger, better, connected TVs; and other devices leading to video and social streaming have all enhanced the at-home sofa occasion. To keep fans paying for the live ‘I was there’ experience, stadium owners will innovate at both a commercial and technical level… in that order. Installing Wi-Fi is an expensive business, so the cost will be off-set (in full or in part) by commercial partners - especially from the telco or media industries, as part of a value-in-kind deal. They pay to connect the stadia in return for a world of new, branded content that enhances the live fan experience. 2015 looks set to see the widespread and long awaited arrival of truly synched stadiums with universal in-seat Wi- Fi and interactive crowd connectivity. This further opens up the subject of wearable tech, low energy Bluetooth devices such as iBeacons, hyper-personalisation, and mobile only m-commerce solutions and payment options to drive loyalty and sales. Location-based marketing services at sport and music events will come of age over the next 12 months.
4) Doing good is good for business
Most would accept there’s been an increasing blur between commercial sponsorship and CSR in recent years. Nowadays, the two often unite. Western Union’s exclusive activation of its Europa League sponsorship through an educational cause initiative called PASS is just one case in point. In fact, IEG predicted that cause sponsorship spend would grow 3.4% in 2014 and they were right. Based on a further insight that 87% of people around the world believe companies should place as much importance on the ‘interest of society’ as on the ‘interest of their business’, expect a similar pattern in 2015. Clients will place social purpose at their heart of their sponsorship/partnership strategy and the year will see the maturing of sport’s ‘third sector’.
5) Plan for the best AND prepare for the worst.
There’s a reason why sports marketing is alternatively known as the engagement channel. It fires up passion and companies plan for the best in the hope of creating a positive halo from any association. But modern day sponsorship brings risk and reward in equal measure. There is unprecedented scrutiny on how companies protect – as well as maximise – their sponsorship investment but many still fail to have robust communication plans in place: having a clear narrative; mitigating issues; managing crisis; setting and imposing sponsorship guidelines (especially around social media and talent). After the unwanted headlines preceding the Sochi Winter Olympics and the FIFA World Cup in Brazil over the past 12 months, 2015 has to be the year every company investing in sport mandates reputation management as part of its sponsorship planning process.
6) Think inside out!
When embarking upon a new partnership (or renewing an old one), how many senior executives ask whether their own staff perceive their company’s sponsorship as an indulgent spend or critical business investment? The reality is this debate is becoming louder and more public. If mis-managed, the consequences are significant: high staff turnover; low morale; diminished productivity; real risk of employee discontent being heard outside of the business, especially those impacted by cost reduction. Rather like reputation management, effective staff engagement is now a pre-requisite to planning a successful sponsorship. In fact, sponsorship and broader partnership marketing will become a bridge unifying HR, Marketing and Communications. Ask Sainbury’s, whose support of the London 2012 Paralympic Games took the firm’s employee engagement figures to record heights.
Andy Sutherden is Global Practice Director of Sports Marketing & Sponsorship at Hill+Knowlton Strategies