Innovator Insights: Highlights from AT&T, NBA, Anheuser-Busch & Many More At Brand Innovator’s Sports Marketing Upfronts

Brand Innovators Sports Marketing Upfronts livecast featured executives from leading brands across categories sharing their stories on how they are pivoting to the new era of sports consumption. Here are six key takeaways for how brands can create a winning sports marketing strategy from executives at brands including: Turner Sports, AT&T, New Balance, NBA, PepsiCo, Danone, and more.

Sports marketing has had an insane year, with major events canceled and others resuming for limited play to empty stadiums.

For Turner Sports, the shutdown came at a time when momentum for the year was just getting started. “We were on pace to have one of the most historic years we’d ever had, the demand we saw from both the NBA and NCAA was through the roof,” said Seth Cole, Senior Vice President, Brand Partnerships at Turner Sports at Brand Innovators Sports Marketing Upfronts livecast. “We were on pace to do some amazing things with our partners, but that all changed very quickly.”  

Flexibility became a key element for brands that literally saw months of work and strategy go out the window over night. “Our number one priority was flipping the script,” said Shiz Suzuki, Head of Sponsorships and Experiential Marketing at AT&T. “Through adversity comes the greatest opportunities. If there’s a silver lining to all of this, it must be that.”   

The shift has driven sports brands to focus on the at-home experience and to try to connect to fans in their new environment, outside of the bars and arenas, and in their living rooms. The NBA leaned into the virtual fan experience and saw 60,000 virtual fans participate during the season and in postseason games. The association used this fan engagement to connect viewers with celebrities, former NBA players and influencers and saw 2x the amount of engagement than traditional efforts.

“When COVID hit, we really pulled out all of the stops because you don’t know what’s going to resonate, so we experimented a lot in terms of fan engagement in a COVID world,” said Danielle Lee, Chief Fan Officer, National Basketball Association (NBA).  “The strategy was really three-fold. We wanted to preserve the sense of community. We wanted to offer a level of personalization. And we wanted to provide unprecedented access. We partnered with Facebook’s Oculus, which was the first virtual reality headset partner for the NBA. We know courtside is the best seat in the house.  The Oculus front row view, introduced new camera angles, offering fans all over the world, access to that premium experience.” 

Anheuser-Busch brand Michelob ULTRA transformed its messaging when the pandemic hit to show to focus on the safety of its employees, partners and customers. With bars and restaurants closed and sporting events canceled, the brand wanted to show its concern for its community.

“The very first thing we did in the face of this pandemic as a company is to put the safety of our colleagues, safety of our people, and our communities first as this was the number one priority across the company and all of our brands,” says Ricardo Marques, Vice President Marketing, Michelob ULTRA, Anheuser-Busch. “We were proud to be a small part of the help that went to fighting this pandemic with one of our initiatives such as the hand sanitizer but this was the first thing on all of our minds collectively.”

Burger King scrapped its earlier plans and came up with new creative overnight to meet the momentum. “For us, we were very well-positioned when COVID hit because we have been a very creative company,” said Rogelio Magana, Director, Marketing and Advertising, North America at Burger King Corporation. “We are the brand without the fire-power and huge budgets of our competitors, so we pride ourselves on being creative and idea-led. It makes more sense to have that unique perspective. We try to break the mold so that we are heard and rise to the occasion.” 

Magana was joined at the two-day summit by senior marketing executives at New Balance, Frito-Lay, BurgerKing, PepsiCo and Danone among many others. Here are six key takeaways for how brands can create a winning sports marketing strategy. Head to Brand Innovators’ YouTube page to watch the whole event.

Balance art & science. For New Balance sports marketing offers the challenger brand a number of tracks to work with a variety of athlete partners on a range of activations. The company balances the data with creativity living by the notion of Fearless Independence.”  

“Sports marketing is a balance between art and science,” said Chris Davis, Chief Marketing Officer & SVP Merchandising at New Balance. “You must take a both qualitative and quantitative approach. Our philosophy and principles are really the subjective factors in our core set of values that we religiously abide by.”

Develop a digital content strategy.  The pandemic only served to increase consumers’ ever-growing appetite for digital. Brands should spend time developing their content strategy through these channels to keep conversations going even as events are shut down. For example, during the NFL season Frito Lay created The Players Tribune, a content portal featuring videos of players cooking and eating inside their homes such as making nachos with Tostitos to help bring the product to life.

“Our content strategy went from activation in live events and stadiums, to really becoming digital,” says Marissa Solis, Sr. Vice President, Core Brands, Partnerships, and Media, Frito-Lay. “We started pivoting to a much more personal and creative approach. We leveraged the relationships we have with the leagues and players to showcase to fans what the players were like and to get more personal.” 

Embrace storytelling. Sports fans love to hear about their favorite players and Burger King has taken the lead on this storytelling to draw consumers in.

“With the NBA, we’ve done a lot of work with them around their fan data and statistics,” said Burger King’s Magana. “We’ve been able to give people access into the vast history of NBA statistics. Again, we’ve tried to evolve the story.” 

Stand up for real causes. Consumers shop their values and many are looking to brands stand up for social change. Brands should look to athlete partners that embrace causes authentically. 

“Athletes that attach themselves authentically to real causes are going to become all the more valuable for brands,” said John Evans, Senior Director, Global Sports Marketing at New Balance. “The way athletes engage socially can draw attention way past the world of sports. That type of athlete will only become more important to us at New Balance and other brands moving forward.” 

Invest strategically. Sports marketing offers brands big access to a massive amount of consumers. Savvy brands will use this outlet to invest strategically with key partners in order to connect with the audiences they want to reach.

“When it comes to our approach to sports, we really try to focus our efforts,” said Katie Haniffy, Head of Media, Beverages at PepsiCo. “If we’re investing in specific sports, athletes, talent, we want to synergize, not go the other way. Let them own it - we want to be smart, and make sure we’re investing in the sports that are strategic for us and strategic for our consumers and the broader sports fan base.”  

Be flexible. If 2020 has taught us anything it is that big plans may have to be dropped at the last minute for something else to meet people where they are at.

“This has been a tricky year,” said Kieran Foley, Head of Partnerships, Brand, and Strategy at Danone. “There’s been a lot of upheaval but I classify myself as an eternal optimist and I think marketers are naturally born that way in our DNA. As brand marketers, it’s always a case of trying to facilitate consumers to the properties to exactly what they want. Whether that’s at live events or a different manner, we just pivot to understand exactly what the consumers are doing and how they are consuming and engaging with media content.” 

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