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Forget perimeter boards, sponsorship fan engagement is now about joining the conversation

By Jonathan Powell 16 May 2017

Sports sponsorship is no longer about eyeballs on perimeter boards and media exposure, and is instead everything about engaging in conversations and interacting with fans.

As General Manager, Global Brand Strategy, for the Nissan Motor Corporation, Gerhard Fourie knows the key elements in harnessing this passion for sport.

The South African has worked with teams in markets around the world to bring maximum value for the brand. Nissan’s global partnerships include those with the UEFA Champions League, the International Cricket Council and the City Football Group.

Fourie spoke with Yutang Sports at the Telegraph Business of Sport event in London recently. He shared insight into emerging trends in sponsorship activation, advertising opportunities and social media and explained the steps rights holders and brands must consider when engaging with fans.

“Everything is changing and it’s changing very quickly - rights holders are even having difficulty understanding how their own fans are consuming new media, and also about the role that sport plays in their lives,” said Fourie. 

“It’s the conversations that have become part of the experience, as even if you are in the stadium you will hold your phone, and chat with friends. A lot has changed from five or six years ago.” 

So, when it comes to sports sponsorship, how do you measure what is world class?

Fourie says it is simple. “You must most importantly be clear on the metrics you want to use. Finding a metric that runs logically for the business, and that you can report on, that doesn’t drive you in the wrong direction.”

Then there is the digital aspect. “You must be making sure that you are able to join conversations with fans, and plan sponsorship activities around changes that are happening in the media landscape.”

He also emphasizes the importance of continued support and investment in grass roots sports. Another important element, is how to match larger sponsorship properties, that get all the attention, with the smaller more personal ones that are more at the grassroots, those that give you opportunity to engage more one on one, on a smaller scale. It is the balance you have to find with the effort behind 100 small scale events compared with two large scale ones.”

For brands in China the rules are the same. Fourie says the first thing to get a clear understanding of, is the audience.

“In sports partnerships, we can sometimes go for the most expensive ones and then sometimes I get the impression people don’t know what to do once they have it, although it seemed like the right thing to do.

“Secondly, it is important to ask ‘how will we benefit from this relationship and why is this a unique opportunity for us as a brand?’ This is a practical question. The audience is interesting, and the property is right, but do you have the capacity to leverage the relationship? I think many sponsors have had experiences where they have a good relationship, they have the right contract, but then sustaining an activation campaign over 12 months, for everyday of the year, is difficult and they fail. 

“The last point is to ensure that as part of the original idea you are aware of how you are going to measure any success. In many cases I see that this is left to the end. So, up front, how am I going to measure if it is working, how frequently am I going to measure it, and how will that benefit my organization? If you only aim for ‘so many people watching, or so many media articles written about the organization’, then that’s great, but is still not an outcome useful to the organization. If the organization wants awareness, then they need to say ‘our spontaneous awareness was 20, now it’s 40’, so you can see a movement. 

For example, many times in football we might have only had 11 minutes of perimeter board exposure during the game, but in itself I don’t know what that actually means.” 

When it comes to those Chinese brands making big sports property acquisitions overseas, the key element must be to determine the audience they are trying to reach.

“It depends on where the focus is. Who are they trying to convince? Who are they trying to engage with? If it is a domestic audience they are seeking to engage with through a prestigious European property, then that relationship could be useful. It would give a level of global credibility, and unique experiences that many Chinese companies might not be able to secure. If their intention is to engage with a European audience however, then you have to be very sensitive on how you engage with the traditional fans of the club, if you are a new sponsor or owner. It depends on why you are doing it in the first place.”  

Last summer, at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, the focus of Nissan’s branding effort was a temporary naming-rights deal with Arena Hotel Copacabana, which renamed the beachfront luxury spot the “Hotel Nissan Kicks” for nearly two months during the Olympic and Paralympics Games. Nissan officially launched the Kicks, a new SUV, prior to the Games. Fourie had executed the deal in 2012.

“The one lesson we’ve learned is that because cars are owned for a very long time, we are not in sponsorship to try and sell you a car tomorrow. We need to engage with fans, get an interaction going and then hopefully they will have a better opinion of us when it comes to buying a car.

“The Olympics is a challenge because of the low level of branding, as the event is ‘clean’ for the Olympics. So it is very difficult for a brand to be recognized as present. The idea of taking over the hotel was that we needed a hospitality area for all our guests, and we decided to get permission to brand the hotel and then have more of a physical space in Rio, rather than just being spread out over three or four hotels. We had everyone in one place and changed the name, changed the exterior of it, and than had a more physical presence for the people visiting Rio. 

“We had a media room for non-affiliated media, and also partnered with universal music for roof top parties with surprise artists, hosting over 200 people. One of the challenges of the Olympics is that you can simply disappear as a sponsor, as the branding opportunities are so limited across the city. At other tournaments, you can have a station or a themed location in a park nearby, but not at the Olympic Games. We worked with the city in terms of what we would be allowed to do, to respect their policies. We wanted to find a way to have an iconic, two or three week positioning on the beach front at Copacabana.” 

But, the Olympic journey for Nissan finished there, and it won’t be making any similar deals for Beijing 2022. “We focused on Rio specifically because we had opened a new factory in Brazil, and launched a car just before the torch relay. It made sense.”     

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