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As a brand you need to be clear with your purpose and why you want to be involved

Dragan Perendija

Fredda Hurwitz, a renowned branding and sponsorship strategist who recently founded her own London-based globally focused consultancy Gingernut Thinking after spending eight years at Havas Sports & Entertainment, is certain that a long-term strategy is essential for brands entering the sports industry. Born in Boston, she has always been a fan of her home sports teams, and believes that fans should not be pigeonholed into traditional demographic categories. In her SPORTO interview, Fredda shares her thoughts on doing the right thing for brands and sports organizations, Neymar’s influence on PSG, Anthony Joshua, endorsements, and the sports industry’s appeal among university students and the youth.

SPORTO: We live in a content-cluttered world. Our attention span is getting shorter, social media channels have brought us the ‘fear of missing out’, market leaders are shifting from mass marketing to individual marketing, technology and the use of data are transforming fan engagement … In this context: how do you see today’s sports sponsorship landscape from a brand’s perspective?
Fredda Hurwitz: I find it quite challenging and to be honest, I have a soft spot for brands who are expected to deliver so much to fans on a regular basis. They need to evolve, enhance their offer, provide the ‘insider’s scoop’, achieve proximity and personalization … But I also believe that part of the joy and the passion around sports, particularly live sports, stems from the feeling of inclusivity and from simply being a fan among many other like-minded fans. Many brands have delivered highly creative, fan-oriented campaigns to support their sponsorships, but sometimes it is simply about taking a step back and being a supporter rather than the leader. For example, the sports apparel brand SKINS has recently launched a new campaign, #FansNotNumbers, with the underlying message that clubs continue to increase the cost of tickets for football fans, effectively making the thing that they are passionate about, more about the business of football rather than the beauty of the game. Sometimes it is the simple stuff that is needed versus the next big technological advancement …
Leading sports properties all over the world have in a way also been evolving into media companies with enlarging their primary fan bases as one of the main goals. For example, Juventus’ new motto after rebranding is to challenge the notion that they are relevant only to football fans … Do you agree that ‘at the end of the day’ it is all about the strength of the brand and the love for the brand?
This is a difficult question. The easiest way to respond is to put myself at the heart of the answer. I grew up in Boston and I am a fan of Boston teams, but you could never call me a die-hard fan. I do not regularly follow the teams, I do not know who the hot players are anymore, I cannot reel off the team stats – but since my childhood, my teams have always been the Celtics, Patriots, Red Sox and Bruins. Full stop! I do not believe that my connection is based on a love of them as ‘brands’, but I do feel a love for the teams and what they represent for me. In my case, as I imagine is the case for so many people, it brings me back to my youth and listening to my dad enthuse about the ‘guys’ and their performance, good, bad or in some instances, truly horrifying! I think a true fan does not view their team as a brand, but something much more fundamental than that, i.e. it is simply ‘their team’, it is in their DNA.


“Exciting is that the sponsorship world we once knew will undoubtedly evolve into something new, paving the way for young people to help set the agenda for the future and push all of us to think, see and act differently for the greater good of the sport, the fan and the entire sponsorship ecosystem.”

Having said that, there are plenty of fans around the world, particularly in Asia, who are massive supporters of brands such as ManU, Chelsea etc. These ‘brands’ still need to perform and resonate with fans who have absolutely no logical connection to that team. And it is not always because that team wins. There are plenty of teams out there that are not at the top of their game, but their fan base is still strong because of the emotional connection that these brands have managed to establish with these fans ... So being horribly long-winded, I do not believe that it is as black and white as ‘a love for the brand’.
Also concerning branding … How would you define a trendsetter brand in sports environment nowadays and how important is a long-term strategy?
I firmly believe that a brand that decides to go into sports needs to have a long-term strategy. Of course, there are occasions when a sponsorship needs to be reviewed, i.e. decision makers come and go, players leave or get traded, marketing and business objectives may shift, but fundamentally as a brand, you need to be 100-percent clear with your purpose and why you want to be involved. You cannot just hop in and out or walk away because the team you sponsored is experiencing a truly frightening losing streak. If you fragment or falter with your commitment, you are walking on thin ice when it comes to the fan base.
Many of the successes we have seen over the years can be attributed to brands that have been involved for a long time, such as Coca-Cola with the Olympics (more than 75 years) or Robinson’s and Wimbledon (over 80 years), Peugeot and Roland Garros (more than 25 years) … Brands who are in it for the long haul are giving themselves the chance to learn how to best align their brand values with the property they are sponsoring and how to establish honest and hopefully positive relationships with the fans. That is fundamental for me.
In terms of a trendsetter brand … I am certain a lot of people will disagree, but I honestly do not find the term trendsetter to be appropriate. Hand on heart, I cannot think of one brand and confidently say: “You guys know what the future holds – I will take some of that, please!” Why? Because none of them has that long-term visibility. There are times when it feels as if the future is happening daily and we are just trying to keep up with it.  Some brands are clearly doing a great job of standing out and resetting how we all need to think about this space, Red Bull being one of those brands. Others are laser focused on enhancing the sports experience from wherever a fan may be in the world, enter virtual reality, which at some point may truly be scalable … I just do not know if trendsetting is the right word.
If I think of trendsetting in the broader sense, Patagonia (although not a brand that sponsors) is one that comes to mind. They make quality products, they are loved by their fans around the world, and they are dedicated to protecting the planet and donating profits to the causes they believe in. Smart brands are creative not merely to be creative, but because it is right for their brand and their intended audience. These brands provide a degree of personalization and stand for something. They do not patronize their fans or the sports and they do not bucket people into neat little demographic groupings. Fans are not homogenous. They will have different reasons for why they are fans, but what connects them is shared passion. Brands that understand and appreciate this are, in a way, trendsetters for me.

“I think a true fan does not view their team as a brand, but something much more fundamental than that, i.e. it is simply ‘their team’ – it is in their DNA.”

Havas Sports & Entertainment, where you were Global Chief Strategy Officer, identified five major focus areas for disruption in the Trends 2017 publication: sport for the sharing generation (all things social), data and technology, new media, do the right thing (integrity) and growth of esports. Let us discuss the integrity part.
Across all levels of sports, from grassroots to professionals, there is room to ‘do the right thing’ and have integrity. It should not be an afterthought. We often hear that a brand is looking for a cause-related component to align their sponsorship or campaign to. They raise some money or drive awareness and prove themselves to be a good citizen, rather than baking that ethos into their sponsorship from the beginning and integrating it into the core of their business. As a sponsor, you can do the right thing from day one and still be profitable, achieve the results you are trying to achieve, engage your employees, delight the fans and positively contribute to the world.
Neymar’s record-breaking transfer from FC Barcelona to PSG has rocked the sports world in the recent months. If we leave aside other aspects of the transfer, how do you see Neymar’s impact on the PSG brand and his global marketability at the moment?
Of course, there already is significant impact with his arrival, but unfortunately my crystal ball is at the repair shop! If we take a step back, ultimately, he still needs to perform and perhaps beyond what he has achieved to date. His arrival will drive merchandise and ticket sales and drive huge numbers across social. His sponsors and their agencies will need to be even more creative in the way they work with him in the role of a PSG player versus just Neymar in Paris. He will need to demonstrate that he is positively embracing his new team and the city, helping them to become the best team they can be, especially as they continue on their trajectory of growing their global presence.
The heavyweight boxing champion Anthony Joshua was named the world’s most marketable athlete in 2017 according to SportsPro’s ‘Most marketable list’. Could other athletes learn anything from the rise and the management of Joshua’s personal brand?
Yes and no. By that I mean that athletes cannot simply be marketed like a commodity. There is only one Ali, one Michael Jordan, one David Beckham, one Serena Williams and so on. These ‘other-worldly’ individuals are easily marketed because they have a cocktail of qualities that naturally exist: their talent, their ability to connect with fans, perhaps their looks, the things they do off the court ... Anthony Joshua naturally has a lot of these qualities. For sure, there are things that can be learned and packaged up, but at the end of the day, if an athlete does not already embody many of these tangible and intangible qualities, no matter how much money is spent on marketing, you simply cannot turn athlete A into athlete B. The fans will see through it all and outright reject the athlete for his/her lack of respect for the sport that they love.

In Las Vegas, the Floyd Mayweather vs. Conor McGregor fight broke the all-time PPV record. Despite all the comments about the mismatch, the world tour promotion was very successful and there is a huge demand in the market for such events. If we refer back to the sports versus entertainment comparison, what is your view on fan behaviour, consumption and demand?
People love a good show. Some of the fans are there because of the purity of the sport and others because of the spectacle. In this case, the question ‘Can those two guys really match-up?’ truly intrigued the media and fans globally.

Fans have many reasons for why they are passionate (while at Havas Sports & Entertainment, we called this the logics of engagement). Esports is ‘new-ish’ as is Formula E with many ‘next sports’ slowly carving out their space. Some fans are interested in sports because they enjoy the social side while others love the strategy, i.e. did the referee make the right call. There will always be a fan base waiting to share, comment and support. As long as fans feel there is something in it for them, there will be demand and they will get involved. Furthermore, as much as people hold on to tradition and the ‘good old days’, they also like the new next – we are naturally curious beings! There may be a lot of initial resistance (people are still struggling with esports even being a sport) but once they get their heads round it, all sorts of magic can happen. As a fan, you constantly want more of what you love.

People love to identify with winners. Essentially, dominators in sports and polarizing personalities intrigue us …  Brands are using more sophisticated ways to capitalise on sports personalities (activation around special moments, producing content connected to their legacy, real-time engagement …). What is your view on the endorsement market and the current trends?
I have always had a love-hate relationship with sponsoring an individual. I think it can be very risky and not all brands have the ability to weather the storm if something goes wrong with the talent. There is so much unknown when investing in a young athlete. He or she can have all the right ingredients on paper, but sometimes the pressure or the money and temptation can be that athlete’s downfall. As a brand, you need to make a decision beyond the contractual agreement: do you have a moral obligation to stick with an athlete you have invested in or do you walk away, since it could potentially damage your brand? It goes without saying that any brand considering sponsoring an individual needs to undertake their due diligence and have confidence that when push comes to shove, the athlete shares the same values as the brand. Without trust and mutual respect at the heart of any deal, it is a very slippery slope both parties are embarking on.

“Smart brands are creative not merely to be creative, but because it is right for their brand and their intended audience.”

The European Sponsorship Association (ESA) has announced that the annual figure for the size of the European sponsorship industry in 2016 was €27.15 billion, an increase of 5.7 percent from 2015. According to the numbers, the industry is constantly growing, but on the other hand, it is also a very competitive field. How do you see the appeal of the sports sponsorship industry for students and young people?
It is a massive opportunity, as sponsorship spending will continue to increase. What I think is difficult, as you said, is breaking into the industry. Having said that, I do not think for a moment that it will not be competitive nor should not it be – surely this industry wants to attract great talent the way any sector does, right? What I do think has changed from when I first entered this space, is diversity. At the time, there were hardly any women in senior roles and a large majority of the men all seemed to have been cut from the same cloth … thankfully, the world and sponsorship is slowly moving on!
Sponsorship is an incredibly sexy industry and when it is done right, it can be a beautiful thing. As such, I do not believe that appeal will wane anytime soon. Young people will still be attracted to it, but what is exciting is that the sponsorship world we once knew will undoubtedly evolve into something new, paving the way for young people to help set the agenda for the future and push all of us to think, see and act differently for the greater good of the sport, the fan and the entire sponsorship ecosystem.

This text was first published in the SPORTO Magazine No. 10 (October 2017).


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