Re-claiming London 2012’s marketing promise

How much would we all give now for another month like London 2012, which began five years ago this week? The memories remain crystal clear. The stadiums were ready on time, and packed out. Miraculously and gloriously, the sun shone, and the only thing raining was Team GB medals. Afterwards, the global consensus was that it was one of the best ever Games - maybe the best ever. And then we did it all again at the Paralympics, which was unquestionably the best ever. It put the U into UK and the G into GB, and being British felt good.

It also felt like a new dawn for sports marketing. But was it?

Famously, the London bid for the Games was won on the vision of 'inspiring a generation', especially into physical activity. But post Games, that particular needle stubbornly failed to move, until in 2015, Sport England's 'This Girl Can' campaign inspired millions of women to get active - with not an Olympic ring in sight.

There is no doubt, however, that one of London 2012's biggest marketing legacies was the momentum it put behind women's sport - now of course enjoying its highest-ever profile - owing to the success of Team GB's women, spearheaded by the Games' poster girl Jess Ennis-Hill. This led directly to the intense and continuing competition between the BBC, BT and Sky, all of whom ran huge London 2012 campaigns, to be seen as a champion of women's sport. And long may it continue.

A broadcaster also played a key role in another of London 2012's biggest and most positive sports marketing legacies: the re-invention of the Paralympics. Channel 4's dazzling exclusive broadcast coverage and award-winning 'Superhumans' campaign put sport's most inspirational spectacle from second class citizen to centre stage and made household names of GB's Paralympic athletes.

And again the legacy continues: Channel 4 repeated the coup at Rio 2016 and has just done so again for the London 2017 World Para Athletic Championship.London 2017 - the closest thing we have seen to the Olympics and Paralympics since 2012 - also offers clues to other sports marketing legacies of London 2012.

Whereas the London 2017 Para Athletics attracted numerous big-name sponsors, the London 2017 World Athletics Championship, which begins on Friday with major BBC coverage and the final appearance of Usain Bolt top of the bill, has struggled to sell any major sponsorships: the result, as it has admitted, of the Russian doping scandal which has engulfed athletics - and which we now know tainted London 2012.

How will athletics fill the huge gap created by Usain Bolt's retirement? And will fans and sponsors ever be able to believe again that what they are seeing on the track and field isn't doped?

Also striking: of the seventeen brands who were major domestic sponsors of London 2012, ten (including BA, EDF and Lloyds) are no longer involved in UK sports sponsorship at all, and of the other seven, only one sponsored London 2017 - BP, a Synergy client and committed Paralympic partner, who ran a major campaign around the London 2017 Para Athletics, as they did for London 2012.

Now you could advance various plausible theories as to some level of brand churn, in particular changed business priorities and sponsorship fatigue - not uncommon after sponsoring something as big and demanding as an Olympic and Paralympic Games. But to lose ten out of seventeen brands completely? Whatever sport was selling post 2012, it wan't for them. To paraphrase Wilde: to lose one may be regarded as misfortune, to lose ten looks like carelessness.

This is not to suggest, however, that other brands, and other events, have not stepped up. And here again the influence of London 2012 has been pervasive.

The UK’s State-sponsored strategy to win and host world class sporting events has seen the UK host an unprecedented series of events since London 2012, such as the Rugby World Cup, the Ryder Cup, the Tour de France, the Women's World Cup and more, with more to come. And in every case the staging and fan experience has been superb, inspired by the world class example (and in many cases the alumni) of London 2012.

But London 2012's biggest marketing legacy was how it transformed sports sponsorship activation. Faced with traditional barriers (the IOC's no logos policy) and new possibilities (the mass adoption of social media), the Games' sponsors re-imagined for ever the activation ecosystem around events, and demonstrated for the first time the enormous potential of the collision of creativity and technology at scale.

Every major event since then has evolved and accelerated this model, so that where we are now is light years ahead. But London 2012 blazed the trail. This truly was a new dawn.

And now, five years on from London 2012, sports marketing faces another new dawn and another generational challenge, and this one may just be its biggest ever: how to make sport itself relevant to a new generation who aren't satisfied with the status quo of how sports are organised, played and consumed, and who are re-defining what matters and what doesn't when it comes to following and engaging with sport.

Part of the solution to this challenge, which sport already recognises, is new, shorter formats such as Twenty20 cricket, and new media models which will see traditional TV rights deals give way to partnerships with the new tech giants, who are already at the table: the future is already here, it's just not evenly distributed, as William Gibson said.

But the other is even bigger and more important: to nurture and market the uniquely unifying power of sport as a beacon of hope in a world where division and disunity are the new norm.

To give sport a purpose beyond profit, measured not on how much money it makes or spends, but how it and its brand partners uses sport to make a meaningful and tangible social, cultural and maybe even political difference.

Imagine, for example, how powerful it would be if cricket threw all its marketing weight globally behind bridging the gap between Islam and the rest of the world, which of all sports it is uniquely qualified to do.

Now that's what I call inspiring a generation.

This piece was originally published by Campaign

Synergy Spotlight

The 2017 ICC Women's World Cup, the oldest and most prestigious international women's cricket tournament, is back on home soil after 24 years and England have booked their place in the final at Lord’s on Sunday. They will be challenging for the trophy in front of a capacity crowd of more than 26,500, with the ICC having delivered on their bold commitment to achieve a sell-out.

At Synergy we recognise how important it is to not only hero the women on the pitch but also the women behind the scenes making it all happen.  So we are delighted that this month our spotlight is on Zarah Al-Kudcy, Head of Marketing for ICC Global Events.

1. Your career in 1 sentence/1 paragraph?

From communications in a sports agency (Fast Track), to communications and marketing at a governing body down under (Athletics Australia), to marketing in the world of broadcast (Sky Sports) to global event marketing (Rugby World Cup, ICC Champions Trophy and ICC Women’s World Cup).

2. What is the highlight of your career to date?

Being part of the team that delivered the most successful Rugby World Cup in history. And now being part of the team that sold-out Lord’s for the ICC Women’s World Cup Final!

4. Describe yourself in 3 words.

Motivated. Motivator. Sport.

5. What is the key to your success?

I’m obsessed with sport! We never stop learning from different sports, different markets and different people.

6. Who inspired you and why?

I can’t pick one person, partly because I’m indecisive but also because so many people have inspired me over the years. From my Mum who always told me I could do anything (even when I told her I was going to make Wenger sign me!) to the colleagues I’ve had over the years who are now great friends. And of course, some of the sportsmen and women I’ve had the pleasure of working with.

7. What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

At risk of being a cliché, I have always been a sucker for a marketing campaign and when I was younger I was really struck by Nike’s ‘Make It Happen’ – it’ stuck with me ever since.

8. What advice would you give to your younger self?

Be patient and worry less! Everything happens for a reason.

A VERY NECESSARY (R)EVOLUTION

Recently I became a fully paid up, lycra-clad member of the cycling community. And it strikes me that there might not be another sport so out of touch with my generation.

Using the sport’s own parlance, cycling is getting dropped. Participation isn’t the problem – British Cycling report a 1.7m increase in regular cyclists since 2008. No, I think there is a more fundamental problem.

There is no emotional investment in the sport. The Brompton bike commuter, Box Hill weekend warrior or Richmond Park Strava guru have no connection to the professional elite.

Let’s address the elephant in the room immediately. I don’t think this is because of cycling’s well-documented history of doping scandals, although the ongoing Jiffy bag saga doesn’t help much.

Perhaps the biggest issue is how the sport is broadcast, particularly the prestigious Grand Tours (the Giro d’Italia, Tour de France and Vuelta a España).

Mainstream sports now accommodate our dwindling attention spans by producing high-quality, high-value highlights, real-time highlights content. Highly watchable, easily shareable and in/on-demand.

Cassandra say that younger audiences are more likely to follow sport via social media (68%) than watch it live on TV (50%).

By contrast, I could watch this year’s Giro D’Italia in one of three ways:
1. Spending up to six hours that I don’t have (I work in an agency for God’s sake) watching the live broadcast on a pay TV channel I don’t have a subscription to (Eurosport)

2. Waiting for 22:00 when I could watch Jonathan Edwards host the hour-long highlights package on Quest (a channel I’d never heard of before)

3. Watching a five-minute highlights package that doesn’t even have commentary on the Cycling Weekly website

Radical innovation isn’t necessary, but cycling needs to at least be brought up to the standards being set. Broadcasters will point to stage-racing as ill-suited for on-demand coverage. Six hours, with the peloton in formation for most of it, is a long time to wait for the excitement of a bunch sprint to the finish.

To be fair to cycling, this isn’t a problem unique to them. The IOC – custodian of the greatest sporting event on the planet – is struggling to reach younger audiences. Golf is suffering the same affliction.

Enter Velon – a collection of World Tour teams including Team Sky that have acknowledged this and reacted with the Hammer Series.
Three race disciplines over three days (the Hammer Climb, Hammer Sprint, and Hammer Chase) have distilled the most exciting elements of the sport into one event. It has the potential to become the next Twenty20.

This simple, short format produced some frantic racing at the inaugural Hammer Sportzone Limburg. Team Sky claimed the victory during the final event, edging out rival Team Sunweb by a matter of metres.

The riders’ suffering on crossing the line is plain. Velon have found a way to give this meaning, sharing rider data (power, cadence, heart rate and speed) across their website, app, and social channels. Onboard GoPro footage should be the crowning glory of the riders’ newfound connection with their fans.But it isn’t. Not for me.The crucial missing ingredient is storytelling. For too long the cycling narrative has been nothing but negative. Lance Armstrong and his infamous US Postal team have done significant damage, but there has been no attempt to recover.

There are stories to be told as well. Mark Cavendish is a former World Champion. He is 4 Tour de France stage wins behind the legendary Eddy Merckx’ total of 34.

We’ll have to wait until next year to see if he goes past it after retiring due to injuries sustained from a crash caused by talismanic World Champion Peter Sagan.

However. His riding style has also courted controversy. He has been accused of brashness, even arrogance ("when journalists at the Tour de France ask me if I am the best sprinter, I answer yes”). He is married to a former glamour model.

He is as charismatic as he is talented. But we don’t hear about any of this.

We have been spoiled by the ongoing success of British Cycling and British cyclists and so their stories have been lost amongst the medals and les maillots jaunes whilst we root for the underdog.

The rise of boxing, in tandem with the rise of Anthony Joshua, is testament to the power of storytelling. What was once a minority sport has been made mainstream by the man that still lives in a council flat with his mum.

It is an interesting idea that a brand could come in and play the role of storyteller; becoming endemic to the sport, creating the missing connection and increasing fans’ emotional investment in the sport and riders.

Crucially, however, it must be the right brand. Values must align and stories must be complementary. Something to cut through the cluster of B2B logos currently plastered across the riders’ kit would be a welcome relief as well.

Don’t waste the Hammer Series. Work with an innovative broadcaster; a partnership with Vice would be a real break with tradition. Peel back the curtain, work with influencers as well as athletes. Bring the reams of data to life and we will take notice.

Velon have a huge role to play in cycling’s millennial makeover. They should be saluted and applauded for the role they have already played. But storytelling is the final, crucial missing ingredient in interesting a notoriously disinterested audience.

Get the stories right and the sport will be rewarded with the attention long denied it. Build it and we will come.