With the start of the Euros fast approaching, some of the key sponsors, including Coca-Cola, Volkswagen and TikTok, explain how their sponsorship strategies have changed due to pandemic delays
Sponsorship of The UEFA European Football Championship usually presents an attractive proposition for businesses wanting to increase brand awareness and reach an engaged and enthusiastic sporting audience. However, the challenges of the past year have made preparations for this summer’s event more difficult than normal.
This has been reflected in the value of sport sponsorship as a whole. The European sport sponsorship industry hit a record high of €30.69bn (£21.7bn) in 2019, but this dropped by 9% in 2020 to €18.42bn (£15.87bn), according to figures compiled by Nielson Sports and the European Sponsorship Association (ESA).
With this decline in value last year, many sponsors will be looking for a greater return on investment in 2021, according to ESA chairman Andy Westlake. But they are see the opportunities being associated with one of the first major sporting event of the summer offers. “Brands are increasingly excited about the return to live experiences and want to be part of this return to normal life,” he says.
With a year-long postponement and frequent changes to the arrangements, communication between the rights holder and sponsors has been crucial. Reflecting on the challenges of the past year, Ricardo Fort, Coca-Cola’s vice-president of global sports and entertainment partnerships until earlier this years, says: “UEFA was very proactive in its communication with everyone and that was incredibly helpful. It gave us time to rethink our plan.”
Fort, who left the fizzy drinks giant in February to start his own sports consulting company, claims that many of the preparations that happen behind the scenes will be “invisible to consumers”. Negotiations between packaged goods companies and supermarkets around promotion windows can take place up to a year and a half in advance of the event. These arrangements represent the biggest return on investment for a sponsor like Coca-Cola, Fort explains.
“The fan parks and access to the matches themselves is not as important for packaged goods companies because the number of people is limited, whether Covid restrictions are in place or not. However, the supermarket sales of products is a big deal,” he adds.
What’s in a name?
Although the major considerations for companies during the initial phase of the pandemic were around employee safety, supply chain challenges and their ability to continue producing products, Covid-19 was also a cause for concern for sponsorship executives.
Fort says: “Sponsorships were a secondary issue at the time but my main focus was on how we can protect the rights we hold and the investments the company had already made.”
One important factor for Fort during this period was the decision to keep the name Euro 2020, despite postponing the date of the football tournament to 2021. “It might look insignificant on the surface,” he says. “But that can make a lot of difference to the marketing work that was already in development. If we have printed 10 million cans with the Euro 2020 logo and it changes, they would have to be written off. Keeping the logo meant they could still use all these cans and simply fill them a year later.”
Volkswagen, which is the official mobility partner of Euro 2020, was forced to adapt its marketing plans due to the pandemic. It had originally planned in-person activities at all venues but has been forced to scale these back to ensure they are safe.
“Initially, we were planning numerous activities, at all the participating venues, to get the fans excited about our products,” a Volkswagen spokesperson says. “However, the health of all participants, be it athletes, volunteers, fans or employees is our top priority.”
The German car manufacturer now plans to interact with fans outside a limited number of venues, including London’s Trafalgar Square Fan Zone and Wembley Stadium. Its experiential promotional activities will include handing out free T-shirts and vouchers for e-bike rentals.
The pivot to digital
With the opportunities to interact with football fans limited, digital strategies are increasingly important for the Euro 2020 sponsors. GlobalData’s head of sport analysis Conrad Wiacek says: “The practical reality is that sponsors can’t just do the things they did at the 2016 finals, they have had to get a little bit more creative.
“It could herald a new age in sponsorship activations, demonstrating that you don’t have to be there physically to reach fans.”
Part of this change has been driven by the increased involvement of CMOs in the sponsorship process. “When trying to secure a partnership you’re now dealing with the CMO,” Wiacek adds. “Ultimately they want to know what the spend is, the potential return on investment and how effective the campaign is going to be.”
This is backed up by research from Nielsen Sports. Its study found that sponsors which measure the sales impact of their marketing activities can expect a 20% higher return on investment, on average.
Sports marketing platform Caytoo’s co-founder Alex Burmaster believes that digital has been “the saviour of the sponsorship industry” during the pandemic for many of these reasons. “With fewer fans in stadiums, watching the Euros on television represents a reduced experience, so you’re going to need that digital element to fill the void and create content that’s going to generate excitement, interaction and buzz.”
The TikTok effect
This demand for online content surrounding the European tournament has opened up new opportunities for digital brands. The rescheduling of the Euros to June 2021 allowed social media company TikTok to become the first digital entertainment platform to partner with UEFA.
“Historically, sport sponsorships have been occupied by a very traditional group of companies,” Burmaster says. “Now that sport engagement has mostly happened online [over the course of the pandemic], it has opened up the eyes of these digital brands to sponsorship opportunities.”
The impact of the partnership is already clear to see, with Nielson Sport reporting that TikTok’s Euro 2020 launch video generated more than 6 million views and 160,000 interactions. Viewership was 145% higher than the average post on UEFA’s TikTok channel during the same month.
Commenting on the sponsorship deal, TikTok’s head of marketing for Europe, Middle East and Africa James Rothwell says: “The culture of the Euros chimes perfectly with the TikTok community, who love to celebrate and participate in football in uniquely creative ways, so the partnership was a natural fit. With the sponsorship, we want to bring the spirit and passion of this much-loved sporting event to an even wider community, and we can’t wait for the games to begin.”
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