NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Pricey sports sponsorships are often described as a casualty of the digital revolution. Why write a nine-figure check to be an official partner of the FIFA World Cup or the Olympics when a well-executed web video such as Nike's "Write the Future" can score 20 million online views or associate a non-sponsor more strongly with an event than the companies that paid for the affiliation?
Increasingly, mega-marketers are finding that the best way to make such sponsorships worth their considerable cost -- and fend off well-executed ambush attempts -- is to connect every activity related to the sponsorship to one big idea.
That approach paid off handsomely for global marketers such as Procter & Gamble, Coca-Cola and Visa. Executives say that for brands such as these, tightly aligning all their activation for a sponsorship under a theme that reinforces their brand message pays significant dividends for them and limits opportunities for competitors.
"It is not important, it is critical," said Antonio Lucio, chief marketing officer at Visa, which saw dramatically improved returns on sponsorship investment after shifting all of its global activities under the "Go" platform, which emphasizes the access Visa provides during the 2010 Vancouver Olympics (and, subsequently, the 2010 World Cup). "At the end of the day, a sponsorship is nothing more than an amplification of the brand message, and it doesn't work if that message isn't ... consistent," he said.
There is, in some way, a back-to-the-future quality to this trend. Part of the reason heavily themed sponsorship efforts went out of style was that work built for one event is often difficult to repurpose for another. An ad built for a soccer tournament doesn't fit in during a basketball broadcast, and it's hard to justify the expense of creating reams of creative with such a short shelf-life.
But the soaring costs of sponsorships, combined with an increasingly fragmented media that both dilutes muddled messages and also provides countless outlets -- and ammunition -- for would-be ambushers has forced major-event sponsors to reconsider.
One mega-marketer that clearly came to the same conclusion was P&G, which reportedly spent $15 million to become an official sponsor of the U.S. Olympic Team and utilized the platform solely to court moms. The "Proud Sponsor of Moms" program at the Winter Olympics incorporated advertising and promotion for 18 brands, including endorsement deals with 16 U.S. athletes and the company's first corporate-branding effort on TV, marshaled by Wieden & Kennedy, Portland, Ore. The company also set up a house in the Olympic Village in Vancouver for families of U.S. athletes and paid travel costs for moms of athletes who couldn't otherwise afford to come to the games. Besides some well-received ads produced in advance of the games, P&G also got NBC to provide footage of moms celebrating the victories of their children to show in a commercial that aired during the closing ceremonies.
The effort paid off in spades. P&G's favorability rating jumped 10 points over the course of the marketing program, said Global Brand-Building Officer Marc Pritchard, and sales and share of the participating brands grew ahead of projections. In all, he said the program generated 6 billion impressions, 3 billion of them from PR with 2 billion from TV and 1 billion online. Months later, he said, P&G is still getting letters from moms thanking the company for the work.
Key to making the program work, Mr. Pritchard said, was a strong unifying idea. "We had 18 different brands that sponsored 16 different athletes. Each of [the brands] had their own idea. That was good. But we didn't think it was enough. So then we put that to our creatives. The brief was what idea would link these 18 brands, 16 athletes and P&G. And at first it wasn't clear what that would be. [Wieden] arrived at the idea that behind every athlete was a mom, and moms are there to sacrifice every step of the way, and P&G is there every step of the way in appreciating them."
The 160-country, $600 million campaign Coca-Cola launched for this year's FIFA World Cup had a broader target in mind than P&G's Olympics push, but executives there insisted on a similarly singular message for the largest campaign in the history of the world's most famous brand.
Coke executives said they realized early on that, given how cluttered the media landscape is, they'd need a clear and simple message to break through. So in 2008 they took 13 different agencies to South Africa, took in a local soccer game and quickly decided that all of the company's activation around its massive FIFA sponsorship would focus on soccer celebrations as the expression of Coke's "Open Happiness" tagline.
That started with creative focused on the "History of Celebration," from Argentina-based agency Santo, which assembled highlights of some of the most memorable on-field rejoicing in the sport's history. The celebration theme was continued through Coke's sponsorship of the World Cup trophy's 126-city, 84-country tour, which drew 862,000 consumers, many of whom recorded their own celebrations that were uploaded to the campaign's hub on YouTube as part of a 120-country deal with the web-video colossus. As of June 25, the YouTube page and associated widgets had garnered 25 million visits.
The effort had a soundtrack, too: Somali-born artist K'Naan re-recorded a celebratory anthem with Coke-inspired lyrics, and the song hit No. 1 on iTunes in 15 countries. Coke also deployed the theme on packaging, producing more than 1 billion special-edition packages with the celebration theme.
And, in addition to all those Coke-branded billboards surrounding the pitch, the marketer also got FIFA to agree to present a trophy to the player whom fans selected as having had the best goal celebration at the end of the tournament -- via internet voting, of course.
While consistency is always a virtue in marketing, it's also a money-saver for global marketers such as Coke that need to operate in dozens of countries at once because they can deploy many of the same materials and programs with only minor tweaks.
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Contributing: Jack Neff