Lessons from The Brand Conference 2017

A look back at the key takeaways from the fourth edition of SportsPro's The Brand Conference, which took place on September 28th at Lord's Cricket Ground.

Lessons from The Brand Conference 2017

The Brand Conference, SportsPro’s event for those in sport building brands and those in brands reaching fans, returned to Lord’s Cricket Ground for its fourth edition on 28th September.

Supported by our gold partners – UCFB, Umbel and Charles Russell Speechlys – this was the biggest instalment of TBC yet and over the course of ten engaging panel sessions and presentations, a range of vital talking points emerged for stakeholders across the industry.

Broadcaster Lynsey Hooper discusses athlete branding with Freddie Cunningham and Andy Bell of AJ Boxing, and Lucozade Ribena Suntory’s James Young

Selectivity is key to athlete brands

If the scope and range of The Brand Conference has widened dramatically over the four years that SportsPro has been running the event, it is because the criteria that define what constitutes a ‘brand’ in the sport industry are widening, too.

The lessons that were once reserved for ‘brands’ in the traditional sense – the sponsors and partners which support the industry – are increasingly applicable across the sector, as rights holders, athletes, broadcasters and more look to leverage the power of sports marketing to gain a commercial advantage in a crowded and competitive space.

Confirmation of this came early at this year’s edition of TBC, which opened with a look at how Anthony Joshua – British world heavyweight champion boxer and SportsPro’s most marketable athlete for 2017 – and his team built up a brand with a targeted and coherent strategy for maximising the Londoner’s commercial potential.

It is a strategy which has undoubtedly paid off. Since turning professional after his Olympic super-heavyweight gold medal in 2012, Joshua’s star has risen at improbable speeds, taking him to the verge of international superstardom over the course of less than five years. Is it simply a case of being a fantastic fighter in the right place at the right time, or is there a greater level of calculation to it?

“Of course, you need the base ingredient of a very talented athlete,” said Freddie Cunningham, Joshua’s long-term business partner and co-founder of AJ Boxing. “But you also need to put the foundation blocks in early. [Joshua] bought into the picture which is really important – he wanted to take even more control over his own brand, which is quite unique for an athlete.”

Joshua’s own engagement with shaping his brand has been key, particularly when it comes to his major commercial partners, which he picks carefully and works with closely. Sports energy drink brand Lucozade is one of several to have benefited from the boxer’s keen interest – with its head of partnerships James Young recalling at TBC how he flew out to Dubai at a day’s notice to meet with Cunningham and Joshua to seal the deal.

“We flew over to Dubai to pitch because it had to be done there and then,” said Young. “We’d identified Anthony as someone we wanted to work with, but the deal had to be done ahead of his fight [2016’s title defence against Dominic Breazeale at the O2 Arena in London]. So I got over there for an afternoon, pitched the idea to them and thankfully we got it done. People are still telling me that I went on holiday with Anthony Joshua, but that’s not quite how it was!”

The idea that Young pitched in Dubai was the now much-lauded ‘Made to Move’ campaign, which included the TV advert which ends on a shot of Joshua and his mum in the north London flat in which both still live, and was an enormous success.

Andy Bell, publicist at AJ Boxing, said that when the advert was first screened with other brands present, “you could feel the atmosphere change in the room with people going, ‘Lucozade have stolen a march’”.

Joshua and his team carefully select the brands he works with, such as Beats and Under Armour

The aim of the advert, said Bell, “was to take Anthony out of the gym and put him into the public consciousness,” something which aligned with Lucozade’s aim as an active, sport-focused brand, but also a lifestyle one.

“We had redefined our brand purpose, we decided that we want to get people moving,” said Young. “I’m constantly on the lookout for new and interesting opportunities, and AJ was on my radar as someone that people paid a disproportionate amount of interest to what he was doing in the exercise space. People were really interested in watching him shadowbox in a sandpit, or have tennis balls thrown at him.”

Despite having never been in boxing as a sponsor, Lucozade targeted Joshua because “he’s got something about him,” said Young. “Kings and queens, mafia bosses, Frank Sinatra – they all cross the room to meet the heavyweight champion.”

Despite being in a “shrinking sector,” Young said that Lucozade has had “a phenomenal year,” something he at least partially attributes to the campaign which allowed two strong brands to combine.

“We’re going to exceed our sales target by almost double,” he said, “and I can’t say that it’s all down to the AJ effect, but he’s helped to make our brand more modern, more cool. If you wrote the AJ-Klitschko fight as a movie, no one would have believed it.”

A major pillar of ‘Brand AJ’ has been his selectiveness in relation to who Joshua, Cunningham, Bell and the rest of the team will work with. As Young said, “these guys aren’t going to get away with doing something substandard that’s going to damage their brand,” and Cunningham added that this is only going to become more true as Joshua’s brand develops and his fame grows.

“A great example of this is [soccer star Cristiano] Ronaldo, who is out there with 15 different deals with different brands, probably none of which are making any money,” he said. “The general feeling is that it’s too much. We worked with several brands on the way up, but now [Joshua] is at world champion level, it’s about reducing that.

“We’ve got 12 active partnerships and we want to go down to six to eight big blue-chip companies, and how they’re going to activate is more interesting than how much money they’ve got. It’s about taking a very defensive route on that side of thing. You don’t want to be out there with ten partnerships and have one that is making a load of money.”

The panel discuss how esports sponsorships and partnerships measure up against those in traditional sports, and highlight what is hampering the sector

Fragmentation still holding esports back

There was an audible gasp in the auditorium when Cliff Morgan, chief executive of esports-targeted energy drink brand G-Fuel, told the TBC audience that some professional gamers can make “as much as US$100,000 a month” from subscription fees to their content.

Esports is still viewed with some suspicion by many in the sporting world and, as the panel at TBC agreed, part of the cause is fragmentation across the industry – though this produces opportunities as well as challenges.

“The real challenge for those coming into esports from the brand side is that there are so many different opportunities within esports,” said Steve Ford, vice president of sales at Amazon-owned streaming platform Twitch. “You could work with a certain team, or a large game publisher that runs a game, or an esports events organiser, or with Twitch, or you could try to be across the whole thing. But that fragmentation means that, if you want a sector-wide overview of numbers, you’re looking for a unified set of data that just isn’t there.”

That fragmentation applies, too, to the governance and regulation of the sector. Because each individual video game represents its own intellectual property, which is owned by the publisher, staging events or tournaments can be tricky. “Some take a different view of it and see it as good publicity for their game but some are stricter about the use of their IP,” said Jaclyn Wilkins, senior associate at law firm  Charles Russell Speechlys, one of The Brand Conference’s gold partners and a company which has worked extensively in the esports space.

Morgan added that the current situation is “a bit like if the NFL [National Football League] owned and controlled every football out there”.

Central regulation of esports, Wilkins went on, “is such a fragmented area” in part because different genres of games and different titles are completely different. Calls for a single body are like “asking for a regulator for ‘sports’”, without recognising that different disciplines require completely different governance.

Brands are slowly learning the nuances of the sector, however, with Ford noting that last year “in Europe we reached the tipping point where we were bringing in more revenue from non-endemic brands than gaming ones”.

“Esports is a really broad umbrella under which lots of communities exist,” he said, “and that’s what brands are starting to realise and think about. Just because you invest in rugby doesn’t mean you invest in table tennis, and that’s the same with esports. The fans and players of League of Legends are not going to be the same as the Fifa crowd, the world of esports is too broad and you can’t think any more about just sponsoring ‘esports’ in general.”

Kate Johnson, head of global sponsorships at Visa, explains how the brand has been forced to evolve its sponsorships in the digital era

Rapid evolution necessary for traditional brands in age of technological change

Few non-endemic brands in the world of sport have a more prominent sponsorship portfolio than Visa, which has major partnerships with the International Olympic Committee (IOC), Fifa and the National Football League (NFL) to name but three of its most high-profile deals.

Over the last few years, the payment handling and financial services company has stepped up its efforts in the sporting space, taking a more proactive approach to its sponsorship activations and fan engagement activities.

The reason, explained Kate Johnson, the former Olympian who is now head of global sponsorships at Visa, is to do with the shifting nature of the “form factor” of company’s business.

“Sponsorships really have become the crux of our strategy at Visa how we reach consumers en masse to communicate that form factor change to them,” she explained. “Five years ago, it used to be that you’d pull out your Visa card and see our brand, every time you paid for something. But now that’s changing with contactless, and phone payments, and payment rings – at PyeongChang, people will be able to pay with their biometrics! – and we need to adjust because of that form factor change. So getting our brand out there, and updating our brand, through sports is now twice as important as it was.”

On the rights holder side, the TBC audience also heard from Silvio Vigato, co-chief revenue officer and head of brand, licensing and retail at Italian soccer giants Juventus. This year, the club underwent a major rebranding, including a significant redesign to their badge for the first time in their history, upsetting many who felt it disrupted the tradition of Juventus.

Silvio Vigato, co-chief revenue officer at Juventus

Vigato counters that the logo was deliberately designed “not to be a just a refinement; we went for a total disruption”.

In the current era where soccer clubs – and sports teams of all stripes – are looking to gain any advantage possible, particularly in the digital space, the new simplified logo gives Juventus a chance to “go further – beyond our fans, and beyond football,” said Vigato. “We need to shift from being just a soccer club, to a global brand. How can we be relevant and which story can we tell to people who are in Shanghai or San Francisco? We were in need of something more consistent.”

In crafting a logo that is instantly recognisable whether it’s viewed on a phone screen or on a pair of earrings, the club realised they had to make a radical break rather than a slow evolution.

“The new logo stands more for a brand than the previous one,” Vigato said. “The old one had great history, but now we have a logo that represents something more. We went for a disruptive move and the reaction was quite cold. When we explained that it was not just an aesthetic thing but a logical move as a consequence of some business activities, then people understood.”

Wembley was packed out yet again  for 2017’s NFL International Series tie between the Miami Dolphins and the New Orleans Saints

Make mistakes, but only make them once

For an organisation such as the NFL, which, despite falling viewing figures, still enjoys a near-monopoly, enormous popularity in its home territory and has one of the strongest and most recognisable brands in all of sport, any major move can represent a risk to an identity that has taken decades to build.

The league’s decision ten years ago to begin moving games overseas to generate more global interest and build its brand worldwide was always going to rock the boat. “Teams get ten home games per season,” said Mark Waller, the NFL’s executive vice president, international, at TBC. “We were asking people who had invested billions in new stadiums to give up ten per cent of their inventory for the year by taking a home game away from them. You also piss off fans when you take a home game away from them. We’re aware of that, and we work really hard to explain to fans what we’re trying to do.”

Ten years on, and with London hosting four games in 2017’s NFL International Series, the endeavour has proven a definite success – “successful enough that I’ve kept my job, anyway,” joked Waller. The key, he added, was not just a willingness to take risks, but being able to learn from the mistakes that were made if those risks don’t pay off.

“I would hope our history is a catalogue of mistakes,” he said, “but not many mistakes that we have repeated.”  He gave the example of the recent relaunch of the Game Pass over-the-top (OTT) service in Europe, on which the NFL “has made some mistakes in the transition, but I think what you’ll see is that we’ll correct them. When we make mistakes we stand up to them.”