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Sport For Good Playbook part five: How brands measure and report their impact

Measuring and reporting on the impact of programmes, campaigns and activities is perhaps the most important part of any sport for good strategy, but some brands do it better than others. So what are the essential ingredients for a best-in-class impact report?

3 November 2022 Michael Long

To kick off this series, we considered how brands, both endemic and non-endemic to sport, go about developing their sport for good strategies and rationalising them according to wider business objectives. We then moved on to outlining the ways in which those brands are communicating their purpose-driven initiatives and mobilising communities of organisations and individuals to bring about meaningful change within society.

In this fifth and final instalment of the Sport For Good Playbook, presented by Salesforce, we’ll conclude by looking at how brands are measuring and reporting their positive impact through sport for good activities as part of company-wide sustainability and CSR programmes. We’ll explore the benefits and limitations of sustainability reporting generally, what brands should be measuring to accurately quantify their impact, and why thorough, frequent and, above all, transparent reporting is key to achieving long-term goals.

First, the benefits

Today, in line with the increasing focus among corporations and investors on environmental, social and governmental (ESG) performance, a growing number of companies are publishing reports to provide an overview of their sustainability-related efforts and commitments. While their titles vary – sustainability, impact, ESG, CSR, or even, in the case of Danish sportswear and lifestyle brand Hummel, company karma are all used to a greater or lesser extent – such reports generally share the same purpose, which is to publicise and highlight performance against ESG metrics.

Reporting on environmental and social impact should not be viewed as an end unto itself. Instead, it should be seen as a means of keeping score and holding oneself to account. As much as anything, reports are an opportunity to monitor progress frequently and transparently, keep a running tally of the impact your investments are having globally or in specific markets, and to fine-tune sustainability and CSR strategies year after year.

Indeed, the best sustainability reports are an extension of the sustainability work itself. They reaffirm a company’s purpose and augment its brand storytelling, combining substance with style and providing tangible evidence of impact across the triple bottom line. Not only that, reports also provide verified data and measurable commitments that hold up to scrutiny and meet the needs of all stakeholders whilst rationalising investments in line with company objectives and embedding positive outcomes across an organisation.

The limitations of reporting

Nowadays most sustainability reports are lengthy, slickly produced documents and interactive webpages full of aspirational mission statements and headline figures. But the devil, as ever, is in the detail.

Standards for measuring impact and reporting progress on ESG metrics are still developing. Across most industries reporting standards are becoming more rigorous, but, as this article in the Harvard Business Review (HBR) articulates, ‘measurement is often nonstandard, incomplete, imprecise, and misleading’.

Ask the experts and they’ll tell you that sustainability reporting, whilst generally well-intentioned, is fraught with problems. Unlike financial reporting, which is governed by agreed-upon standards and regulatory bodies who ensure compliance, one issue is that most companies have full discretion over what they report and which standards they adhere to, if any. Today, only a minority are independently audited by third parties.

Sustainability reports are often littered with forward-looking statements, which are not intended as guarantees that goals or targets will be met. Even if those intentions are sincere, that leaves the door open to inflated ambitions and empty promises, many of which are drawn from misleading or incomplete data. Most companies rely on supply chains that remain opaque and complex, after all. Try as they might, the majority of brands struggle to accurately calculate their impact, particularly as it relates to scope three carbon emissions, across what are often distributed, cross-border operations.

Within the process of disclosing ESG performance, too, there is a tendency for self-aggrandisement. That is, perhaps, inevitable. Better performance comes with numerous material benefits for the reporting company, such as boosting brand value, improving margins, and reducing the cost of securing capital investment. Ultimately, brands generally don’t like to willingly publicise their shortcomings.

Most companies will say their reporting is appropriate and their targets sufficiently bold for their respective industry. But without independent verification and uniform standards, there is nothing to stop companies from handpicking their highlights and filtering out failures. While efforts are being made to harmonise reporting standards and improve practices, clearly defined metrics for measuring impact remain hard to come by.

Examples of reporting best practice

Despite the evident limitations, there are many great examples of sustainability reporting done well within the context of sport. One brand that has been highly commended for its reporting, for example, is Clif Bar, which featured alongside 28 other companies in the inaugural Laureus Sport For Good Index.

Clif Bar’s latest annual report, covering the calendar year 2021, offers a compelling and concise articulation of the US food and beverage manufacturer’s track record in sustainability, as well as its purpose and objectives. The report is a blend of qualitative and quantitative data, interspersed with progress updates, real-world case studies and success stories, including its work with elite athletes to support non-profits helping communities rebuild after natural disasters. Specifically, it clearly connects Clif’s purpose investments in sport to its long-term vision and goals.

Hummel, another Laureus Sport For Good Index honouree, is an equally shining example. Its most recent Company Karma Report, published in May, clearly and comprehensively outlines an extensive list of targets and key performance indicators (KPIs), as well as specific actions and results tied to each objective. It also spells out planned actions for the coming reporting period, in addition to affirming the alignment of company initiatives with several of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Companies such as Hummel clearly outline their targets and KPIs

Measure what you can manage

When measuring and reporting the impact of sport for good programmes, it is important to include traditional return on investment (ROI) metrics, such as brand awareness and advocacy, purchase intent, media coverage, and digital and social media reach and engagement. Like any marketing initiative, there can and should be a business case for making the investment in the first place, so any data to support that decision, particularly anything that will appease internal budget holders, should be tracked and showcased accordingly.

Linked to ROI is the concept of Social Return on Investment (SROI), an outcomes-based method of accounting that enables companies to measure their social and environmental impact in financial terms, thereby demonstrating the social value of an investment.

Social Value International lays out seven principles which are intended to guide organisations from all sectors on best practice in measuring social value. In short, they are as follows:

1. Involve stakeholders
2. Understand what changes
3. Value the things that matter
4. Only include what is material
5. Do not over-claim
6. Be transparent
7. Verify the result

Related to both ROI and SROI is, of course, another widely accepted measure of success known as return on objective (ROO). ROO metrics are intended to objectively determine the value of any business activity and can enable marketing teams to prove campaign impact without tying it directly to sales.

Such metrics are especially important when reporting on sport for good programmes. Number of people reached, number of trees planted, number of hours volunteered by company employees, total funds donated to non-profits and community partners: there are countless figures that can be used to demonstrate the reach and impact of an initiative. What is tracked and reported ultimately comes down to your pre-campaign objectives.

More than a numbers game

Reporting hard statistics like those mentioned above is undoubtedly critical for highlighting the impact of a campaign, but it is important to provide context and tangible outcomes through detailed qualitative analysis.

Santander, a Laureus Sport For Good Index honouree in 2021, activates each of its global sponsorships in sport – including headline deals with the likes of LaLiga, Scuderia Ferrari and League of Legends – to meet purpose-led objectives in their ten markets. In the UK, for example, the Spanish multinational banking group has sought to enhance financial inclusion within the population through its various sport for good programmes.

One such initiative, The Numbers Game, saw the Santander UK team utilise their sponsorship of the Uefa Champions League to support children and young adults in breaking down the barriers to learning about numbers and money. First developed in 2019 as a nationwide roadshow in partnership with the charity National Numeracy, the Numbers Game initiative visited 12 of the most at-risk UK cities and engaged over 30,000 people. But those stats tell only part of the story.

To go beyond the top-line numbers, Santander UK commissioned an impact survey to assess the true impact of the programme on a more granular level. That survey found that 85 per cent of participants said they had a better understanding of the importance of numbers in everyday life, while 86 per cent said that being confident with numbers would help them manage their money better. Due to this, in 2020 and 2021, Santander UK partnered with popular YouTube double act the F2 Freestylers, Rio Ferdinand and online educational platform Twinkl to release free daily soccer-themed interactive learning materials for children and young adults.

In 2022, the Numbers Game expanded and there are now more than 200 free online resources available. Over two million children and young adults in the UK have been positively impacted by the learning materials to date.

Building on the success of the Numbers Game, Santander UK then worked with Twinkl to develop a STEM-based programme which offers a collection of free learning resources and activities specifically designed for 5-16 year olds. The resources have been rolled out and themed as part of Santander’s high-profile sponsorship deal with Scuderia Ferrari, helping to break down the barriers to learning the subject

“We soft-launched the resources, in the same way we did with our financial education resources, in order to seek feedback from schools, parents and children/young adults,” explains Melissa Noakes, the head of sponsorship and events at Santander UK. “We wanted to understand how the resources worked in practice and the impact they had so we can make sure the resources perform well when we expand and scale the programme.

“From the feedback, we now know which resources work hardest, where we can improve and, crucially, which ones are the most useful, allowing us to scale the programme with confidence. As part of the next phase of activation, our measures of success will focus on the impact the resources have had supporting 5-16 year old’s understanding of STEM and STEM subjects.”

As Noakes explains, the Scuderia-Ferrari sponsorship focuses primarily on sustainability objectives in support of the wider group’s sustainability strategy. Therefore, impact studies produced after activations within local markets are fed into a central marketing and communications team to collate the findings and achievements into an annual report.

“For example, after the British Grand Prix, we created an impact report focusing on that specific event activation,” she continues. “We’ll also create quarterly and yearly reports to look at the achievements, learnings and impact, and use that to report back to key stakeholders and help fuel future plans.”

As a financial company, Santander is no stranger to accounting for and reporting information in that way. But when applied to its purpose-led sports marketing initiatives, such thorough measurement has enabled the company to accurately gauge the overarching impact of its investments and tweak its approach when required.

“In terms of reporting, because of the nature of what we’re measuring, we need to have enough time to see the impact our work is really having,” adds Noakes. “For us to truly be able to analyse the data and have confidence in it, we like to measure frequently but have both short-term and long-term timeframes for our reporting cycles.

“Whilst we have specific moments for reporting on our work, we measure the effectiveness of our work consistently. Our effectiveness team works alongside us to ensure we’re optimising our work but also that we can quickly learn from the data and adapt our plans as required.”

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