The recent IEG conference brought the great, the good and the inquisitive to Chicago for the 32nd annual all-you-can-eat-sponsorship-buffet. The content is so broad and pitched to so many diverse audiences (brand, agencies, non-profits, properties) it’s actually quite difficult to distil it down into distinct themes (and in all honesty, navigate when you’re there), but the one that stuck with me at the end of three days is how far the role of talent has come in the partnership space (note “partnership”. Not sponsorship).
Perhaps this is no accident, given that the theme of this year’s gathering was ‘Sponsorship Makers’ – the notion of creating something together that wouldn’t exist without genuine collaboration between partners (and often the audience); a cornerstone of our own partnerships and sponsorship manifesto for a few years now. It’s arguably easier to create something with an individual rather than a faceless organisation with multiple layers of complexity, intersecting – but ultimately separate – opinions.
Partnering with an individual implies a personal touch, humanising the resulting output. A note of caution – I’m not talking about the age old notion of celebrity endorsement, or including talent in a team / league deal to create colour content or schmooze key customers in hospitality. Sure, there’s a role for that, but this is about brands turning to individuals as a way to access a whole new market, develop new product lines or hammer home a message with more credibility.
Take Target’s portfolio. For the uninitiated, (particularly for this Brit who after her first Chicago Deep Dish is not convinced everything across the pond isn’t just both big and cheesy) it’s about big bucks headline associations with the obviously huge – TWO stadia deals in one geography! THAT Grammy spot! And of course, NASCAR – a sport so big, brash and American that my aforementioned pizza suddenly starts to feel more “amuse-bouche” than “unamused GP” in comparison. Dig a little deeper though, and you find a brand that genuinely recognises the value of the individual and seeks collaborative minds.
Sean White has been a partner for 15 years, and his revenue generating line of kid’s clothes is just one iteration of their relationship that started as a bridge into action sports. As the biggest retailer of swimwear in the US, Target has been on the beach for years but only recently went into surfing as a sport. The Target Maui Pro maybe the flagship property, but that’s an outcome of a strategy that saw the brand identify a couple of athletes, quietly provide the support they needed to progress their career while at the same time just listen to what was going on and understand where they could create value together. In this instance, it was in recognising that the female surfers deserved the same season-ending spectacle as their male counterparts and the TMP was born.
This is a long term play – Target’s view on Influencer Marketing is to identify people doing incredible things that will be important 5-10 years down the line. One has to wonder how many brands have the self-belief to back such a long term play.
Next up, Heineken. Dutch beer monolith, long-time Champions League Sponsor, host of THE party house of any Olympic Games and purveyor of Electronic Dance Music laser show extravaganzas the world over. Nothing unusual about a beer brand with allegiances in sport and music – and in the latter, by the brand’s own admission it’s a nut they’ve only just started to crack. When the brand recognised that EDM needed a responsible drinking message more than most, they realised that rather than a tag line, this could actually be a way in to a credible and consistent music message. The tip of the spear was a relationship with the squeaky clean Armin van Buuren, in itself a first for a brand that has traditionally eschewed brand ambassadors.
Together, they created Dance More, Drink Slow and while the counter intuitive message from a beer brand grabbed most of the headlines, it’s beyond question in my mind that the programme simply would not have worked had they mis-cast the talent aspect. AVB’s personal image as the clean living family man was crucial and it was apparently the DJ himself who recognised that the need for a bespoke track with a Drink Responsibly message need not be contrived, and indeed, would prove crucial to delivering at scale –Save My Night went to number 1 in 27 countries and “The Experiment” became Heineken’s most watched YouTube video ever.
All in all, the importance of appropriate talent, selected and secured due to a good fit, rather than shoehorning simply for the sake of celebrity sparkle, is encouraging. It demonstrates that as a discipline, we continue to grow, becoming more strategic and insightful in what we do, and in turn are better equipped deliver bigger/better/smarter brand alliances that benefit our audiences and clients.