Inside Project Restart: Premier League sponsors embrace new tactics for football's return

The Drum 09 Jun 2020 12:00
Project Restart: What Premier League partners learned from lockdown

Whether it's the best football league in the world or simply the best-marketed one, the Premier League's return is big news for fans and sponsors starved of action. Absence has indeed made the heart fonder according to top marketers from Cadbury, Coca-Cola, Barclays and Budweiser, official partners who now look upon the property in a new light. Here they share how their tactics will take shape come kick-off on 17 June.

When sport went dark, a Sisyphean effort was required to get the ball rolling again. The alternative was unthinkable. Properties like the Premier League, the Olympics and the Euros faced an existential crisis, and a huge bill, if they couldn't deliver for fans, sponsors and broadcasters. Rebates aside, there’s been a large fall in global sports sponsorship revenues this year, one study claims 37% year on year, Whether this overstates the damage or not, there will be a knock-on effect.

Here's how the partners are approaching this unique situation.

Cadbury was starting to see some real results in football before lockdown. Its 'Donate Your Words' programme, a partnership with Age UK designed to help the lonely elderly, was finding itself comfortably slipping into the football conversation (football is, after all, the go-to conversation starter for many).

Colin O'Toole, the associate director of marketing of Cadbury equity, said: “We couldn’t have known that just weeks later a lot more people in the UK would experience a similar kind of isolation and lack of human contact themselves. A lot of us will come out of lockdown and get to meet with friends and family but there are a lot of older people in our communities that will continue to be isolated but also need to feel connected, it only takes a couple of words.”

In an ongoing Cadbury packaging promotion devised in simpler times, fans are still being pitched the chance to win a day with football stars Harry Kane, Virgil Van Dijk or Eden Hazard – at some point. On that subject, spare a thought for brands whose packaging, prepared months ago, is now tied to still-frozen properties like the Champions League, the Euros or the Olympics – all a sad reminder of the summer that could have been.

These questions remain broadly unanswered at the moment. They add an extra layer of deliberation onto any action, O'Toole explained.

Whatever the new Premier League brief ultimately entails, or where it goes, Cadbury must remain true to its "philanthropic beginnings and ‘Glass and a Half in Everyone’- moments", according to O'Toole.

During this time, O'Toole's learned “football is not a matter of life or death, but of all the trivial things, it is one of the most important.”

Coca-Cola’s been in football almost as long as football has been a ‘product’. It has been a Fifa World Cup partner since 1974 and has advertised at every tournament in-stadium since 1950. In the Premier League, it is a fresh-faced babe by comparison, just launching in January 2019.

As well as one million donated drinks in Great Britain, with its bottling partners, the Coca-Cola Foundation has contributed over $120m globally to support Covid-19 relief efforts.

He said: “There is clearly excitement about the return of the Premier League, but as we all navigate a new normal, of course caution is required. As a partner of the Premier League, we navigate this by keeping in constant communication and support their aim to manage the return of the Premier League in a safe way.

Taking his marketer hat off for a second, he concluded: “Like the fans, we can’t wait for it to come back to our screens, and we will be there celebrating alongside them when it does.”

Barclays is approaching its 20th year as a Premier League partner. To many, force of habit means the competition remains the Barclays Premier League, a throwback to its long-running status as title sponsor, even though EA Sports holds 'lead partner' status now. Such is the power of a long-lasting relationship. Officially, Barclays shifted a gear into the more-relevant banking partner position a few years ago.

He said: “We’ve had a cry out from our business wing to be providing and producing more content. We’ve been keeping people amused during this period and our football sponsorships have become even more important than they ever were before."

“We had to work fast to understand how we continue to get the value from those properties in a period where we're all socially distancing and staying apart."

Corbett recalled how a Zoom call between Premier League legend Alan Shearer and a few lucky Hong Kong clients went off without a hitch. Barclays had even posted them a beverage of their choice to enjoy during the experience.

He dubbed the return of football as a "huge step in the right direction and a small signal of getting back to normality"

He concluded: "It'll be interesting to see the shape of the game after it is back up and running without fans."

Amar Singh is head of football content and strategy for Budweiser. He believes it is the partners' job to bring fans closer to football. In normal times, this would be a rather obvious statement. In so-calledunprecedented times, this forms the backbone of any sports marketing brief.

Bud’s been building the ‘Support From Home’ experience.

For now, it's had success with the pub quiz format.

Budweiser, as a huge stakeholder in physical events – be they in sports, music or just general pub-going – is faced with the challenge of driving renewed relevance. The return of its classic ad 'Whassup', with a new spin, showed how the brand was thinking on its feet.

As for the sports properties, Singh thinks the lockdown will force a rethink of what football fandom is: “In the hierarchy of football fans, it’s the supporter who follows from a distance who has so often been regarded as less deserving of recognition or somehow less of a fan than the loyal season ticket holder.”

He concluded: “Just because fans will be physically detached does not mean they should be psychologically and emotionally detached from the action when it returns.”

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