Until recently, creating interactions between a sponsored athlete and customers was not scalable. Traditional media forms, such as print, TV and radio limit conversation. Brands and their athletes can communicate with customers and fans, but that is it. There isn’t a medium for customers and fans to communicate back. Brands and athletes do all the talking and customers do all the listening.
To make it worse, customers and fans don’t get to choose what they were listening to. That is not much of a relationship. It should be no surprise that brands are finding it more and more difficult to maintain customer loyalty. Digital tools change this dynamic. Brands, a sponsored athlete and customers can now engage in a genuine conversation.
Updating your sponsored athlete strategy
Most athletic brands use the same sponsored athlete strategy: find an athlete that appeals to a target demographic and have the athlete endorse products. This strategy usually includes developing a library of photos and videos where the athletes wears the brand. Some brands may be lucky enough to have media of their athlete winning while wearing the brand. The unlucky ones settle for bios, action shots, highlight reels, and non-podium finishes.
The digital strategies for these brands do not fare much better. It’s the same content as traditional marketing; it’s just applied to the website, mobile app or in-store display. Customers ignore it, as they’ve always done. But the brands keep producing it. The majority of brands just can’t seem to wrap their minds around the fact that customers expect content to be both digital and interactive.
Customers want to interact, not be talked at. They want to direct the engagement themselves. Television commercials, radio endorsements, and in-store print signage have become noise to consumers. In order to become a digital destination brands must move away from how they are currently using the digital tools at their disposal and towards how customers want to use digital tools to engage the brand and their favorite athletes.
Sponsored athletes as trusted advisor
Athletes have a special place in the hearts of fans. Fans see athletes and the brands they represent as two different entities. And as much as brands would like its customers to see both as one and the same, it is actually better that customers don’t. It’s this separation that gives credibility to their endorsements. Athletes are far more effective communicators than brands will ever be. They enjoy a higher level of regard and trust with customers.
Whereas traditional media only allows intrusive and random sound bytes from athletes, digital tools encourage thoughtful and coordinated messages. Customers who see their favorite athletes as idols do not need much communication beyond, “These are the shoes that I wear.” These customers are easy to engage. But customers who like to research a product before purchase need a bit more attention. An explanation of technical features, benefits, care instructions, fit, etc are things things customers want to know before a purchase.
Sponsored athletes are in the position to be a trusted advisor, providing much needed knowledge to customers. And if it makes sense, they can even make recommendations to other complementary products that customers would like. Athletes can even provide reassurance post-purchase, discussing the ways a particular product has enhanced their performance over time.
Making athletes more accessible
It is easy to put athletes on pedestals and make them inaccessible. Traditional media has been doing it for years. But customers don’t want hero worship. They want an athlete that they can connect with and engage. Some brands have found ways to use digital tools to innovate traditional marketing. Adidas is one such example.
During the 2012 NBA playoffs, Chicago Bulls player and Adidas sponsored athlete, Derrick Rose tore his left ACL. This injury left the Bulls without their star player and Adidas without their star NBA spokesperson. Without Rose the Bulls were unable to advance to the NBA championship and Adidas was unable to leverage his playoff success to generate sales for the new D-Rose basketball shoes.
At this point Adidas made an interesting decision. Instead of lamenting its bad luck, it decided to use Rose’s recovery as a way to generate interest and fervor for the 2012-13 NBA season. During the second half of 2012 Adidas produced “The Return of D Rose.” The YouTube series invites fans and supporters to be a part of his very personal and emotional journey to recovery.
The series generated more than 6.5 million views, 68,000 subscribers, 7,500 comments, 12,000 favorites and 39,000 likes for the adidas basketball channel. Far more impressive is that among the commenters is Rose himself. After watching the series it is hard not to be a supporter of Rose and Adidas.
Leveraging digital tools
Adidas’ campaign has plenty of potential. Each one of those subscribes, comments, favorites and likes represent an opportunity to engage fans in the future. A name and an email address are all that would be needed to offer select fans a chance to win Bulls tickets, D-Rose shoes, Adidas NBA apparel, a meeting with Rose, an online Q&A, and more importantly a chance to become even bigger Rose and Adidas fan. The point here is not for brands to create push marketing channels, but for brands to become a platform that connects fans with their favorite athlete. Fans love nothing more than to tout and share their fervent passion for both athlete and the brands that helped to connect them.
Leveraging digital tools to resonate with customers does not require an injured athlete or a YouTube campaign. One simple way brands can begin to be more effective is to incorporate athletes into the website and into digital retail displays. When customers want to know more about the technical features or performance benefits, the sponsored athlete can provide an explanation in his own words through a short video.
Maximizing the relationship
When maximizing the effectiveness of sponsored athletes, the three most important questions are:
- How are athletes helping brands create a stronger connection with customers?
- How are brands helping athletes create a stronger connection with customers?
- How can digital tools improve the experience for brand, athlete and customer?
Customers are digitally savvy and expect tools and interactions that are fluid. Traditionally, sponsored athletes have been “icons”, inaccessible and placed upon pedestals. These interactions are one dimensional: the brand marketing at customers with athletes as a mouthpiece. While this strategy still works, digital tools are allowing other types of interactions to happen, encouraging the conversation to no longer just be one dimensional.
Any campaign that improves the relationship between athletes and fans is an opportunity to improve the brand’s standing with fans. Where possible, create digital avenues for fans to access their favorite athletes directly and engage with them through your site. Even if it is only practical to do so once a year with a live digital Q&A, take advantage of the opportunity to get conversations going that will provide valuable feedback and lasting impact.