Brand Medalists – is your brand a contender?

2012-08-15 07:44

Phil de Picciotto – President of Octagon Marketing’s Athlete and Personality division and Qondisa Ngwenya, Managing Director of Octagon South Africa – go on the record.

It’s not often I get a surprise phone call to go hot footing it to the Mount Nelson on a Friday morning to meet one of the greats in sports and entertainment marketing. But recently that is precisely what happened and I suddenly found myself having a friendly over a pot of tea and scones with Phil de Picciotto, the founder of Octagon Marketing’s incredibly successful, global athlete and personality representation division and Africa’s leading light, Qondisa Ngwenya.

Some 30 years ago when Phil was starting out, with a little company called Advantage International (bought by the Inter Public Group in 1997 who created Octagon), the US and European sponsorship market was very different to the multi-billion dollar industry it is today and one that Octagon has helped to shape. In fact, Phil draws some parallels between the markets of yesteryear and that of Africa today where he sees and predicts that the next rise in brand marketing will be through individual role models – athletes and personalities.

Does he have the appetite to do it all over again – here on the African continent? An unreserved and definite ‘YES’. Not surprising when the backbone of the Octagon success story comes from understanding the nuances of the sports world blended with marketing and consumer driven insights. There’s a lot of money to be made.

“But good too.” How so? I ask with only marginal cynicism - Phil is one of those consummate professionals who are quietly confident, knowledgeable and extremely believable. You can’t help knowing that he has been around the block (for a decade or so) and knows exactly what he’s talking about – he’s seen pretty much everything.

“Sport has the proven ability to positively influence all aspects of a country’s development. Africa is no exception where sport can and should be seen, as a vital contribution to economic and social reform and upliftment.” Sport is unique as a messaging platform and a ‘unifier’ as it is quite often viewed in a ‘live’ situation – an open playing field. In this instant world, sport is made for technology which makes it easily and speedily available to more and more people. It is a key reason why sport can propel a country as a whole to commercial success.

Political and social landscapes have altered radically in the past few years, opening up opportunities that permit a greater number of athletes to compete across a wider variety of sporting codes and disciplines. The fall of the Berlin Wall gave rise to a raft of former Eastern bloc countries such as Yugoslavia, Hungary and Romania etc who suddenly became independent of a central system; similarly, the dissolution of the USSR.

The expanding of social consciousness has also contributed to sport development where for example, in 1994 with the first democratically elected government, South Africa could now include more athletes from across different racial groups which in turn afforded South Africa the opportunity to compete on an international stage. Likewise, the lowering of the communist curtain has seen China enter the arena.

Pushing the growth in the fascination and participation of sport even further, is the rise in women’s rights - middle-eastern women have more freedom than they have ever had before where we have seen women participating in the 2012 Olympics for the very first time. Sport itself has provided a democratic playing field for participation and competition and consequently, a new paradigm.

However, perhaps the biggest and most radical shift in the sporting arena over the last three decades is the evolution in media. In the old days, broadcast media made the stars – think single platform terrestrial television - SABC Sport – who controlled what we saw and when. In the 21st century it is media content that is the kingmaker and this content is now instantly available via a host of different mediums from blogs, online news sites, radio sports broadcasts, print and television – terrestrial and satellite etc.

The advent of cable and the internet spurred the exponential growth of the sports sponsorship business. Media has accelerated knowledge share and athlete development and made these stars ‘accessible’ to us on a grand scale. For example, athlete training schedules are now open secrets as much as what that particular star likes to eat for breakfast. Athletic stars visit our living rooms or computers, on a daily basis either in their sporting guise or as a representative of a certain brand.

Match Temperament

So how does Octagon match an athlete or a personality with a certain brand and how is the value determined? If you were thinking that this a-free-for-all where the sponsorship company ties up every deal that comes their way, you would be wrong. Phil and Qondisa tell me that Octagon probably turn down upwards of 95% of the deals that come across their desks as there is not a natural fit between the brand and the personality. The science of sports sponsorship isn’t about quick wins. It’s about sustained performance – endurance if you will – for all parties concerned. It’s about a true partnership where goals are created together and the outcomes are shared.

Sports and entertainment marketing is a ‘legitimate’ marketing discipline that can no longer be ignored here on the African continent. The development of a larger middle class in countries like South Africa for example, will initially bring about clutter in the market place but also a real opportunity for South African brands to create unique ‘properties’ structured around athletes and personalities that can stand out in the crowd. Sporting heroes being one of the best ways to differentiate brand messaging, particularly in a sports-mad country like ours. Think Chad Le Clos or father Burt, smiling honestly back at us while consuming a sports supplement (well maybe not Bert, but a can of beer would have the same effect in his hand) and you get the picture.

But sports sponsorship goes beyond just branding an athlete. Take swimming. A brand considering sponsoring a celebrity in this arena also has a duty and a responsibility to support and invest in, that sports body’s federation to ensure that swimming heroes of the future are created. Rowing in South Africa will also benefit from the recent gold medals won by the lightweight fours at London 2012. It is in this arena that Octagon as a company of many years experience, excels. Here, Octagon pulls on its decades of global experience to guide and strategise for not only the individuals concerned, but the future of the sport as a whole.

But, misaligning a brand with an athlete or a personality or being ahead of the curve and the audience not being ready for the message/sponsorship alignment, can have costly implications all round.

What advice would Octagon give the SA Olympics stars who may now be considering sponsorship or brand alignment deals?

Crucial for the long term success for any partnership in this arena is a matching of the persona and the performance of the personality in question, to the brand – an athlete or a personality has to be able to be themselves and authentic – good, bad or indifferent. In an ideal world, there is not a separation of on and off court personality. These are human beings we are talking about, who are fallible but who have managed through innate talent, a lot of hard work, dedication to their craft and quite often, a healthy dose of luck, achieved sporting prowess and recognition and it is their human side that resonates with audiences in today’s over-cynical and over-analysed media savvy world.

Again, look at Chad le Clos’s father, Bert, who became an overnight success because he was genuine, emotional and untainted. He did not have to be circumspect because he had to uphold a pre-agreed set of ideals. He was himself and the world loves him for it. Could it be there is a brand sponsorship arrangement in the offing?

But it is not just about being a good guy that will get you the coveted sponsorships and endorsements. Sometimes it’s purely because the athlete or personality in question is controversial. Think John McEnroe and Dennis Rodman – the bad boys of tennis and basketball. Competitor brands looking to make a noise, create a stir, grab public attention may well be interested in this kind of approach, in which case a Michael Phelps character would not fit.

An Olympic sized market

At this point, we turned out discussion to the question of the Olympics – the globe’s biggest trade show for sports sponsorship deals.

I remember growing up when the Olympics was all about amateurs having the opportunity to strut their stuff and make us all believe we too could dive into a pool and swim a record 100m or race around the track and be the fastest human alive. It was about unified country pride – no matter race, colour, creed or religious outlook. The words “professional athlete,” were almost tantamount to profanity.

Not the case in the 21st century. While athletes at the Olympics are not permitted to wear their sponsored branded clothing to compete, or as much as tweet, there is much at stake.

Surely this commercialization of a centuries old iconic event is bad for its long term future?

“The Olympics is about the best individuals performing on the world stage representing a specific country for glory of that country’s sporting prowess”. The inclusion of ‘professional’ athletes into country teams has somewhat leveled the playing fields these days. Once again, I was taken back to my childhood where the former USSR dominated the Olympic arena with athletes who under the guise of amateur participation were borne, raised and single mindedly focused, trained and effectively subsidized, to achieve Olympic medal status.

The Olympics are actually 17 days of “market” for the world’s top sports men and women. The Olympics delivers a mass audience focused on a single event and that is gold to brands and the athletes (who are brands in their own right) in a world of fragmented media.

Reaching new audiences – influencing more minds

Broadcast of the Olympics has shown that unlike other sporting events, a high percentage of viewers are women (mostly between the ages of 18 – 54) who influence a substantial portion of consumer purchasing habits. This provides an opportunity for an array of brands to be involved in the advertising stream around the broadcast. Octagon has seen this from the interest it has received from the many African countries for whom it has packaged broadcast rights. The 2012 London Olympics has had the broadest reach yet and therefore potentially the most influence it has yet had on a new market who have to date, been largely ignored by mega sporting events.

Opening up the playing fields and blending professional and amateur competitors has actually been good for the event. There are no more artificial barriers between the two and they compete on equal ground, with more athletes being better developed: in effect, it has raised the bar of international competition yet continues to foster country pride and most importantly, sportsmanship – it is more than just winning or losing.

In fact, the broadcasting of the 2012 London Olympics to more people than ever before has ensured its long term survival as the Olympic Games are pure sporting entertainment and the stuff of legends.

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