From London Marathon to Brand Marathon: Three Tips for a Winning Sports Marketing Strategy

As thousands of Londoners gathered to watch the 44th London Marathon in April, breaking records with over half a million applicants for 2024, there’s no better moment to dive into how brands can use sports advertising to fuel long-term growth. After all, brand-building is a marathon, not a sprint.

Events like the London Marathon present brands and advertisers with an exceptional opportunity to engage vast audiences of participants and viewers. Since launching their ‘More than Movement’ campaign in 2022, spotlighting LGBTQ+ boxers, Haleon-owned brand Voltarol has been leading the charge in long-term strategy. This year, Voltarol took their position at the starting line with the ‘More than Running’ campaign, crafted to resonate with runners of all levels. This partnership not only demonstrates strategic foresight but also underscores Voltarol’s unwavering dedication to diversity and inclusion. Their activations along the Rainbow Row segment of the marathon route further cement their enduring collaboration with Gay Times and their advocacy for the LGBTQ+ community. They truly stood out as a top contender in the brand marathon!

While sports advertising may constitute just a fraction of a brand’s overall marketing strategy, when approached with a focus on reaching mass audiences and building brand equity, the potential long-term benefits can be substantial. In the UK alone, sports fans comprise a sizeable 44% of the population, a mass audience exceeding 30 million people. With such vast potential reach, how can brands ensure their sports advertising effectively resonates with these audiences?

Running the Numbers: Sport Advertising Insights 

In 2023, System1 and Fuse, a sports and entertainment marketing agency powered by Omnicom Media Group, joined forces to explore the most effective methods for brands to achieve long-term brand-building potential in sports. Our collaboration involved analysing 170 sport sponsorship assets across TV, digital, and out-of-home platforms, as well as conducting interviews with 32,000 individuals using System1’s Test Your Ad platform. Through this extensive research, we pinpointed the key drivers and barriers to long-term success among both mass audiences and a targeted sample of sports fans.

Naturally, sports fans tend to respond more positively to sports-related advertising, which translates to a higher Star-Rating among this demographic. However, this doesn’t mean that non-fans can’t also be effectively engaged – after all, we’re all human. Interestingly, among broader audiences, we uncovered that 49% of sport sponsorships outperformed the UK norm, highlighting a significant opportunity to expand the reach of your sporting campaigns.

Here are three tips for effective sports advertising to give you a head start:

1. Play your own Game: Elevate Sport Partnerships through Unique Connections

While products like Voltarol naturally fit as sporting partners, forging a direct link between brand and sport isn’t always straightforward, especially for brands in sectors like B2B, finance, and tech, where sporting events might not be a primary focus in their marketing strategy. Even when these brands embrace the challenge, articulating a clear connection or rationale behind the partnership can prove elusive. However, the power of connection is not to be underestimated. Our research reveals that when brands and sponsors establish a clear connection, there’s a significant increase in long-term potential (Star-Rating) by +0.4. Take Marks and Spencer partnering with Sir Ian Wright in their “Eat Well, Play Well” campaign – the connection is clear: healthy eating, healthy lifestyle.

While some brands may not have an obvious connection at first glance, with a bit of creative thinking, the long-term rewards can be significant. Take IBM’s “Introducing Match Insights” online video campaign, for example. It serves as a prime illustration of how brands can leverage their own strengths to enrich a sport. While IBM might not be the first name that comes to mind as a sports partner, they ingeniously established a connection between their brand and Wimbledon that just clicks – for tennis enthusiasts, this partnership added an extra layer of value, driving engagement and earning a 4.7-Star Rating among tennis fans.

2. Same Rules, Different Game: Sports Advertising for All!

When delving into sports advertising, it’s tempting to succumb to tunnel vision, crafting ads and activations exclusively tailored to a sports-centric audience. Niche sporting references, particular celebrities and local teams may heighten engagement for some, but risk tuning out and disengaging a large proportion of your audience. We know from “How Brands Grow” that appealing to mass audiences is vital for driving growth and brand-building, so make sure to advertise with the bigger picture in mind!

In his books Lemon and Look out, Orlando Wood identified the creative features that drive long-term engagement and attention amongst mass audiences, and you’ll be pleased to hear that the same rules apply to sports advertising. Features such as characters interacting, scenes unfolding with progression and a clear sense of place are prominent in ads that score highly amongst nationally representative audiences.

Aldi’s 2022 World Cup advert serves as a stellar example of appealing to mass audiences while seamlessly incorporating sporting references. Taking inspiration from Nike’s legendary 1998 “Brazil at the Airport” campaign, Aldi infuses comedy and character into the narrative, ensuring broad appeal. By leveraging a well-known cultural reference and abundant wordplay, the ad keeps everyone thoroughly entertained while keeping football at the forefront.

3. Distinctive Assets go the Distance!

When striving for long-term success in sports advertising, it’s crucial to recognise the greatest risk of all: losing sight of your brand. Amid the excitement of large-scale sporting events, it’s easy for brands to get swept up in the action, inadvertently diverting attention from their own identity. To remain memorable and top-of-mind, it’s essential for distinctive assets (such as logos, colours, brand characters) to prominently feature across all activations and advertising efforts. After all, if these key elements are not emphasised, how will consumers know where to turn?

Surprisingly, overlooking brand identity is a more common issue in sports advertising than expected. On average, sports sponsorship assets achieve lower-than-average fluency among broad audiences, with only 79% of viewers recalling the brand by the end of the ad. While this percentage may appear relatively high, consider that it means 21% of viewers are left clueless about the brand after forced exposure. Just imagine the potential further loss of engagement in real-life viewing experiences.

Vodafone is a great example of the power of consistency. From their VeryMe Rewards activations to the “Feel Closer to the Lions” campaign, there is no shortage of bold, red branding present across their communications. They consistently achieve a strong Fluency Rating, showcasing that maintaining distinctiveness is key to lasting brand success!

Create with Confidence 

I’ve barely begun to uncover the essentials of crafting a successful sports marketing strategy, but there’s a wealth of knowledge waiting to be explored! Dive deeper into the insights from System1 and Fuse’s joint report, titled “The Sport Dividend: Unlocking Incremental Brand Growth through Sport Sponsorship,” by downloading the summary. Discover how to elevate your sports marketing game to the next level!