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Rashford and Osaka among athletes seeing follower growth amid calls for social change

Nielsen predicts that “social upheaval” during Covid-19 will “reshape” sports marketing in future.

4 November 2020 Sam Carp

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  • Since January, 50% of posts by Marcus Rashford, Naomi Osaka, Lewis Hamilton and Megan Rapinoe have referenced a social cause
  • Rashford’s free school meals campaign contributes to 65% growth in Twitter following
  • 48% of people aged 16 to 29 showing increased interest in socially responsible brands

A number of sports stars have seen a significant increase in their social followings and engagement rates this year after using their platforms to campaign against inequality and social injustice, according to new research by Nielsen.

Data provided by the analytics firm shows that, since January, England soccer forward Marcus Rashford, Formula One world champion Lewis Hamilton, tennis player Naomi Osaka and US women’s national team (USWNT) veteran Megan Rapinoe have posted five times more non-sport related content than their corresponding rights holders.

Of those posts, 50 per cent have been to advocate diversity, inclusion, equality and support for the hungry.

All told, Nielsen’s research found that more than 15 million combined interactions were generated by the aforementioned athletes, their teams and federations from content that referenced a social cause.

More specifically, Nielsen said that Rashford, who has been spearheading a huge public campaign for the UK government to provide free school meals to children outside of term time, has seen his Twitter following alone grow by 65 per cent, while the number of followers across all of his social media accounts has increased by 36 per cent on average.

In contrast, the social following of Manchester United, Rashford’s club, has grown on average by only eight per cent. 

Meanwhile Osaka, who, during her US Open victory in September, wore face masks with the names of black Americans killed by police or in racist attacks, has seen her following climb 57 per cent on average. 

Hamilton’s following on Instagram has risen by 44 per cent amid his support of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. Nielsen said that posts across the Briton’s social media channels since January have received more than double the engagement per post published on official Formula One accounts, and also noted that his most engaging post of this year was in relation to his plans to offset his own carbon footprint.

As well as individual athletes, Nielsen said that people are showing more interest in brands that have acted in a socially responsible way during the Covid-19 pandemic, which could force sponsors to reconsider their marketing strategies moving forward.

According to data produced by the Nielsen Data Fan Insight tool, this trend is mainly being driven by young people, with 48 per cent of those aged 16 to 29 claiming to have an increased interest in socially responsible brands, compared to 46 per cent of 30 to 49-year-olds and 34 per cent of those between the ages of 50 and 69.

“The social upheaval that’s been caused by the global pandemic is likely to reshape what sports marketing looks like in future,” said Samantha Lamberti, head of consulting for Europe and the Middle East at Nielsen Sports. “As a result, we will see a shift in brands realigning their marketing strategies to ensure they support different social causes.”

She added: “Elsewhere the global pandemic has heightened the importance of cause-related marketing, particularly as the communities around clubs, teams and organisations attempt to recover from the impact of the pandemic. 

“We will see this continued change in behaviour with brands not only adapting their own strategies to ensure they align themselves with social causes but we will also see them work closer with athletes that represent similar values and beliefs as they do in order to be seen by consumers as authentic.”

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