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Volume 20 No. 41
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Creative challenges: How to build the Big Idea in activation

Advice columns are no longer limited to the personal space. Such columns are part of the working world, too, and in this case, we’re talking about sales and marketing initiatives in sports, looking at real examples of sponsor activations that have had great impact for fans and brands. The following are examples of some commonly asked questions that I have fielded over time, with the answers aimed at providing input and guidance for agencies and brands currently in this arena.

What is the biggest challenge for brand activation in a sports sponsorship today?

The biggest challenge is creative. Home in on brand attributes and identify creative that is based on those attributes and how they have synergy with the sport. Look to identify partnerships (not just retail) that can help expand that activation message.

When Unilever was launching Degree deodorant for men, the company wanted to target men who take risks. Not stupid risks; they just wanted those active men who are not risk-averse. The World Series of Poker team at Harrah’s (where I was director of strategic marketing) heard about this from its broadcast partner and created The Degree All-In Moment, drawing from the high-stress point in poker when a player decides whether to go all-in or not. The Degree marketing team agreed it could play off this and supported it with a $20 million-plus, award-winning campaign.

If you are a sponsor of an event, look to extend your sponsorship through partnerships. Taste of the NFL has a stable of sponsors and takes place only in the Super Bowl market. To take its sponsorship outside the market, one smart food sponsor approached Bon Appetit (3 million circulation), and the magazine agreed to publish a special 2004 section profiling the recipes of the 32 chefs participating in the event so readers could prepare celebrity chef recipes at home. All Taste of the NFL sponsor logos appeared in the section (30 percent value of a page rate), and it was the first time this event received national exposure of this kind.

Keeping the NHL’s trophies gleaming creates its own endemic category: silver polish.
I work at a league and am tasked to identify new sponsor categories. How can I do this when I feel all categories have been drained?

Look deeper, peel the onion, and know that nobody can leave any money on the table. Look at all endemic categories.
The NHL awards trophies to players each year at a televised awards show. The trophies are historic and diverse and all made of sterling silver. An endemic category for the trophies and the awards is silver polish, so the recommendation would be for a silver polish to be a sponsor of the awards show. The brand would promote at retail by giving fans tickets to the event. A suggested tag line: “If our polish is quality enough for these historic trophies of the NHL, they are quality enough for your silver at home.”

Is it better to “own” a property with fewer sponsors or be part of a larger community of sponsors?

You won’t have to worry about being part of the pack if your creative activation is above the pack. For example, all America’s Cup syndicates have their own sponsors, and one syndicate executed a really smart activation for its sponsor, Pucci (apparel), which has a very distinctive and familiar style. Pucci transferred its design, instead of just a logo, on the spinnaker. When the shoot went up during this televised race, all cameras (still and video) were on this beautiful spinnaker; an aerial shot appeared in a later issue of Vanity Fair and Vogue.

Are there underserved audiences or other alliances I can consider in my sports sponsorship?

The mandate to expand your brand by attracting consumers when they’re young and have them grow with you is still true. But take note: Any league or league licensee that manufactures products that only encourage kids to “buy” stuff is too transparent to savvy moms. It could lead to a backlash. There is much more to be developed in sponsorships, licensing, programming/content, promotion, etc., that are unique and represent opportunities.

During taping of the last season for the popular HBO series “Sex in the City,” a member of the PGA Tour marketing department was challenged to increase awareness and attendance for the tour’s only New York-area tournament. It was pitched to “Sex in the City” producers to write an episode about the girls picking up guys at the Westchester tour event. Due to timing and financial issues, the concept was not executed, but it represented an opportunity to communicate to millions of viewers that golf is “cool,” especially among female fans.

How do I instruct my agency to develop creative for my brand against a league/team sponsorship?

Direct the agency to create a campaign that evokes emotion: comical, sentimental, genuine, or otherwise. The best example I have experienced was a year when the Bulls were in the playoffs and Michael Jordan was as popular a player as ever. A huge billboard went up in Chicago with a picture of Jordan in uniform dunking and copy that read “Trade Jordan.” Chicago sports fans went nuts. This billboard shut down phone lines at the team. The promotion was on TV talk/news programs, on radio, and in print, and you can imagine the sports bars. A few days later, a new billboard went up. Same image of Jordan, same copy, but this time, the logo of trading card company Upper Deck appeared on the billboard as well.

If multiple agencies are involved, create a competition among them with identical parameters and time limitations to control expenses. Provide examples of past successes. Challenge them to submit activation ideas that evoke emotion.
It’s amazing the competitiveness among agencies and the motivation among younger workers that emerges when pursuing the Big Idea that wins the trophy for “Best Creative.”

Sarah S. Galvin ( is a creative activation specialist for brands, sports and media.