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Laureus Sport for Good Index: Can brands genuinely link purpose with profit?

Following the release of the inaugural Laureus Sport for Good Index, Laureus managing director Ned Wills explores some of the challenges in measuring the success of brand investments in sporting purpose.

8 November 2021 Ned Wills

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Sport has the power to change the world.

At Laureus we talk about this line a lot. It is, after all, the purpose of our business – the direct challenge laid down to us by our patron, Nelson Mandela, at the outset of Laureus’ creation over 20 years ago, which has resulted in the organisation we are today, supporting over 250 different initiatives worldwide focused on delivering sport to six million young people.

The claim is sometimes disputed.

At the core of the argument against is the idea that it is an over-claim, that we are putting too much onus on sport, in essence setting the bar so high that it becomes unattainable and consequently sets us up for failure. That, ultimately, it’s nothing more than a moonshot.

The answer to that negative take lies in the provision of evidence: the specific impact that sport can have on a social issue, a country, a community, an individual. By showing the direct evidence of tangible change created and the various benefits that come with that change, the moonshot claim starts to look less fanciful. It starts to look like the inspirational statement it was always intended to be. But one that is underpinned and supported by fact.

It is this thought that is behind the creation of the Laureus Sport for Good Index; a deeper dive into the evidence and success metrics of brand investment in sporting purpose.

The judging criteria we set for selection on the inaugural Index is deliberately tough. It seeks clarity on how brands invested in sport align their purpose investments right across the entire end-to-end of their business and to tie it to the fabric of how they operate. It requires a compelling and well-delivered marketing narrative integrated directly with measured evidence of impact amongst its intended target audience that gives that storytelling the authenticity it requires to be credible. It acknowledges that business investment is based on more than just being good corporate citizens, that it can and must affect the bottom line of commercial performance.

The criteria sets this tall expectation because we believe the potential upside for those that embrace a purpose-driven investment in sport can be substantial for both the business and society in general.

As would be expected, the judging process was a learning curve in its own right. It threw up numerous insights and trends as to how brands are approaching this space and revealed some of the challenges they face in delivering against objectives. Some of these are detailed here:

1. Working at scale is hard. Especially for those corporates operating in multiple markets that lack the flexibility a smaller entity enjoys. The judges were almost unanimous in their critique that every brand, both on and off the list, could be doing more. The evidence suggests that this takes time and patience and the brands that were seen to be performing better were doing so against a long-term and consistent investment approach.

2. Clarity of objective is crucial. What is the social impact the brand is seeking to achieve? What is the problem/problems they want to solve? How are they delivering against that brief and is progress measurable? This is the fundamental difference between empty promises and tangible results and the much-needed specificity referenced earlier.

3. Business-wide implementation is not commonplace. Most sports investments remain departmentalised, seen in singularity as a marketing play or a corporate communications vehicle, a financial accounting line or a HR device. The brands on the Index have tried to bridge these gaps and put their investment close to the heart of their business operations, however it is not always clear how much this approach has been adopted throughout the business.

4. Being beyond repute is probably unachievable. Much of the judging debate revolved around the successes of a brand’s social investment being undermined by wider activities that the business was involved in – a kind of net zero argument between impact success and entirely unlinked corporate failures.

5. Social investment and commercial performance are not immediately apparent. Across all of the brands that were discussed there was a significant lack of publicly available information that linked the effect of a purpose investment to a company’s bottom line. This sits at the heart of the emergence of ESG strategies and is something that needs much greater articulation across the board moving forward. As environmental, social and governance matters become core to business decision making, we would like to see more evidence of how significant investments in sport are being leveraged for the greater good as well as to drive better business performance.

Even those brands that made the list were not perfect in their execution, nor can they be ranked in terms of performance – after all, how can one social purpose be greater than another?

What they all have in common, however, is an all-encompassing commitment to their specific approach, a desire to embrace it fully and deliver tangible results.

It is this evidence that the Index is designed to celebrate – the proof point that sport does indeed have the power to change the world – and we congratulate all those listed for their leadership.

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