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Do Brands Matter in Sports?

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Atte Varsta (left) talks with eight-time World Rally Champion Sebastien Ogier at the Monte Carlo Rally.

By Atte Varsta |

Brands have existed as long as there has been a spoken and written history. Campfire stories, myths, and legends – stories that were meaningful and important to storytellers and their audiences – were  passed from one storyteller to another. Today, those relevant stories are called brands. Value promises that are bigger than life and storytellers. Value promise that lift you up, emotionally and functionally.

In sports, brands have always played a big role in terms of business. Great athletes are easy to admire for their incredible performances. Today, however, mere performance on a track or in an arena is not enough. Sport has become a serious business required to give a feasible return on investment.

Not all sports heroes become big brands. In addition to athletic success, brand status requires a unique personality and something to engage with consumers on an emotional level. Finnish Formula One world champion Kimi Räikkönen has been admired for decades for his deadpan expressions – his nickname Ice Man is well earned. On the contrary, the most legendary boxer Muhammad Ali garnered popular acclaim with his boasting comments. Both are genuine personalities and they have never taken orders from others when it comes to handling the media. Sports clubs, motorsports teams, sports clothing & equipment manufacturers, and everyone involved in the sports business want to have suitable brand ambassadors who reflect their brand values in the best possible manner. The athlete’s “track record” of sporting success is a “must,” but in addition, the value compatibility of both parties – the athlete and the company – is a necessity.

How do branding and sports fit together? Take the legendary Ferrari, for example. Everyone knows and recognizes the Ferrari brand. Ferrari’s core business is manufacturing sports cars. Still, Ferrari doesn’t market its cars on media, but Ferrari’s marketing is focused on running the Formula 1 team. When Ferrari’s F1 team succeeds, the brand succeeds. The value of Ferrari’s core business, sports car sales, is lower in terms of revenue than Ferrari’s merchandise operations.

What about the future of sports branding? The Internet has changed everything in our lives. And I mean everything. The Internet has changed the way we work, how we get information, how we consume entertainment, how we shop, how we handle warfare, how we take care of personal things, and how we interact with brands. The appeal of brands has always been based partly on their distance and mystique. At the same time, brands have been relevant in users’ lives without revealing the whole truth of brands. Due to transparency brought by the Internet, sports brands have become the property of all people.

Brands are under global public evaluation anywhere and anytime. For example, pre-internet era Michael Jordan became an icon of Nike brand in the 80’s and 90’s. Jordan’s image was easier to manage thru media. Jordan’s brand management was created to appeal to all parties. When Tiger Woods achieved a similar icon level position in golf everything was ruined overnight due to the internet and news which traveled around the world within hours. If it isn’t on the internet it didn’t happen and at the same time if you are on the internet your brand is vulnerable.

The old truth of publicity management has been that too much media publicity wears out the target audience quickly. This is also the case for brands in the world of the internet. Without constant renewal and the search for new engagement levels, today’s sports brands will be pushed aside from the path of newcomers. The capability of renewal is the power of success, even in sports branding.

Atte Varsta is the CEO of Proftraining Finland, an experienced sports manager and a collegiate business teacher.

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