For many athletes, it is not clear that as athletes they are a brand.
Many are confused about it.
Many think it is the business of a few, of the truly famous.
In general, we all often think that branding is related only to big companies whose logos and products are instantly recognizable, but in reality individuals can have a brand too!
Why is it important instead for every athlete to feel, regardless of discipline, age, level, and notoriety that they are a brand? What does it mean to be a brand?
What is branding?
‘brä′nd’ s. Engl., In the language of advertising and corporate marketing, trademark a brand is a name given to a product and/or service such that it takes on an identity by itself.
Brand is the combination of elements (such as name, slogan, logo, communication, history, and reputation) that function as a distinctive and identifying mark of a business (and beyond). The brand (or brand) encapsulates image, values, meaning, etc. that differentiate it from competitors, determining the relationship with the target audience.
According to Philip Kotler and Gary Armstrong in their Principles of Marketing, brand meaning is “everything that a product or service represents to consumers,” and this is “the firm’s most enduring asset, living longer than individual products and facilities.”
Brand is an intangible asset and, as Kotler and Armstrong claim, is the set of “consumers’ perceptions and feelings about a product and its performance.”
From here we can already easily guess that we are all entitled to consider ourselves a brand.
However, not all of us are obligated to do so. Why does an athlete?
Because if not already because he/she is still early in his career, as a professional athlete he/she will soon be a public figure and everything about him and available to an audience will define who he/she is, the meaning and values of who he/she is, in other words it will define his/her image.
And it will establish a connection with his audience, his fans.
This connection, which is emotional, can be positive or negative and can also mean that we – the audience – trust, care about, or even love him/her!
What is an athlete’s brand?
It is the communication of his or her uniqueness: his or her sports activities, sports record, performance record, story, style, interests and beliefs, behaviors and values.
Why is it important for an athlete to know and manage his or her brand?
Whether he/she is training with teammates, competing at a race, giving a speech on stage, giving an interview to a journalist, or interviewing with a potential sponsoring company, he/she is making an impression: he/she is communicating his/her brand.
Some athletes dream of becoming famous or winning a gold medal at the Olympics, others just dream of having a good run in a sport without competitions.
By knowing his/her brand and making the impression he/she desires, he/she will find that he/she is able to get the opportunities he/she seeks and have a smoother and more satisfying path in sports and in life!
Why is this all about companies?
Well-designed brands (= well defined and adherent to unique identity, style, needs, desires, goals) can have an emotionalimpact on us as consumers and help create a kind of relationship between us and the brand (and the products or service with which it is associated).
The athlete as a brand with its own unique identity, its own meaning, values, and an emotional link with its fans can be a perfect representative (= testimonial) of another brand and reinforce that emotional link we just talked about.
We could somehow say that the combination of 1 brand + 1 other brand does not make 2 brands but a third “brand raised to the second,” very powerful and a vital part of an integrated and valuable marketing and communication plan for all kinds of companies, organizations, charities.
What is missing?
If we have already stepped forward and understood that we are a brand, what is missing is understanding what needs to be done to design that brand so that it is perceived exactly as we want it to be.
It is one of the most powerful tools for accessing the target market. It determines how fans, sponsors, and the professional sports world perceive the athlete and how they remember and recognize him or her.
It can be difficult for an up-and-coming athlete to stand out from the crowd. In addition, many parties are involved in building a solid personal brand and marketing strategy.
All elements must be considered, from the tangible, such as the logo, font choice and design, to the intangible, such as the brand promise (and in the company-testimonial pairing of two) and the constantly evolving person in his or her totality-as an athlete and as a human being.
Companies that need to devote a slice (larger or smaller) to sports marketing have a responsibility to help the athlete define their brand. Obviously it is a responsibility with a return and the return that makes the most sense for a company at the end of the fiscal year: the famous ROI.
Today, sports marketing and personal branding are a partnership that must be fostered and preserved, and to do so, many elements must be brought to bear:
the usual long-term vision, in fact more than that, it must resemble a dream, technical skills, the famous hard skills, a lot of experience in the field and a strategy that does not only consider sports marketing as an activity integrated with all the other marketing and communication activities but that starts from the investment on the athlete’s brand and supports him/her in his/her growth path.
It is for this reason that we at Sports&Beyond have decided to create a format dedicated to sportscompanies that wish to increase their ROI in sports marketing starting precisely from the investment in the human resource called athlete.
THE OPPORTUNITY – the key role of athletes in the digital world
Companies today have a great opportunity: in the development of influencer marketing activities, they can in fact choose subjects who, on a digital level, are able to accompany a community in their world of reference. And if (IF) they are good, they can also sell products.
In a marketing budget, companies can reserve a more or less large space for both pseudo-digital athletes and professional athletes with a variable economic/financial commitment (therefore not necessarily economic) but certainly light and short-term from a contractual point of view. ROI is measurable whether it’s getting the brand rolling or selling products.
For companies that have a sporting DNA, this opportunity is even more structured and diversified: they can also think of activating influencers, therefore investing in a totally digital plan to reach a wider and more diversified audience, but they must be very careful how to do it.
This type of activity must be included in a strategy that continues to prioritize the sponsorship of professional athletes, and the activities must be aligned in order to work synergistically.
Because there are two different levels through which to communicate that do not touch each other and are divided by the only human peculiarity that can pass from the real through the digital: EMOTIONS.
But from a company’s point of view, as we’ve seen, what really differs between sponsorship and influencer marketingis the intangible assets that sports sponsorship brings to the table.
Sports represent certain values, they have emotional significance to their fans. When you start sponsoring a certain sports team, or athlete, you’re “buying” the loyalty of those fans, and at the same time you’re associating your brand with the values that the team, athlete, and sport represent. With influencers, this is much harder to achieve.
RESPONSIBILITY – preparation, knowledge, strategy and structured plan
When comparing different marketing strategies, the most important factor to consider is the goals and impacts that said campaign would have. Every business ventures into marketing to achieve certain goals, and every marketingactivity will have tangible and intangible impacts. And this is where we believe Responsible Marketing plays a huge role.
Because a company that intends to be competitive in the long run is not only thinking about making a profit, but also and most importantly about bringing about change and creating value for its customers and society at large.
And from a Responsible Marketing perspective, Sponsorships will always be a better option than Influencer Marketing. Firstly, sports and sports teams are relevant across generations, they appeal to different age groups and some of them even have a legacy of over a hundred years. And that association and credibility is something you, as a company or brand, would want to be associated with. Whereas influencers can have very high impact and “numbers” but have a very short shelf life. They may be relevant today, but will they be relevant tomorrow? No one knows for sure.
Also from a social perspective, clubs are a part of the community, they give back to the community, they add value to the community and to every single person within the community. Whereas the vast majority of influencers today are mostly promoting a lavish lifestyle and flaunting the good life they’re living. And that’s not exactly a good influence on the younger generation.
When a brand partners with an influencer and pays them a certain amount of money, do brands know where this money is going? Do they care about the use that is made of the money they just paid? Well, we believe they should, and that’s what responsible marketing is all about.
When it comes to a sports club, you know that the money paid to the club is going to the club’s management, salaries, resources, base and academics, and even the community and society. But when it comes to an influencer, more often than not, the money goes to fund the “Instagrammable lifestyle” of said influencer. This only leads to more and more kids idolizing a fake and unhealthy lifestyle.
Again, we’re not saying that all influencers are the same. There are some really good ones who add real value to their particular niche and also go out of their way to “educate” their audience. But it’s still unfortunately a minority.
That’s why we believe sponsorship, especially in sports, is a more effective and sustainable marketing strategy for brands than influencer marketing. Do you agree?
AUTHENTICITY – which rhymes with veridicity
As long as we are human beings and retain a part of humanity we will be able to distinguish, consciously or unconsciously, and choose.
Even in an age that is accelerating towards a totally virtual world, the beacon that guides us is still – at least today – made of dreams, fear, effort, successes and failures. Possibly real and not simulated.
Whatever choice is made, this should always keep us very alert and in control of the cross and delight par excellence of all our actions: authenticity.
When authenticity is questioned it shines a powerful light: what’s underneath? Is it all true? Or is it all false?
“Is that an ironman for real or is he just pretending to be one???”
Doubt alone makes every good thought, every good deed creak, and sends every good strategy and every good plan up in smoke. But all is not lost if, on the company side, there is constant awareness of the strategy and the choice of action plan.
And at this point, let’s think about it, the important question is another one and it has deeper roots:
Where do I want the truth to start?
To help us answer this question, we could watch The Truman Show, which for decades has set the standard… and today we could also look at it through the lens of Anna Soroki aka Delvey, who can help us give new keys to interpreting real worlds through the worlds invented in the digital world thanks to selfies placed in “where I would like to be and where I am, even if for all intents and purposes I couldn’t”.
Yeah, life is hard! We still consider a well structured and “educated” sponsorship program with an authentic team of authentic athletes learning how to make good selfies as valid (= able to bring a good ROI),
But let’s think about it again, how many Anna Delveys from the sports world does each of us know? Can we really pretend they don’t exist? Or can we instead make the various worlds coexist peacefully producing the right results for companies?
Our answer is yes. If you want to know how, contact us!
THE STAGE – the physical world and the digital world
To look at possible meeting points and to evaluate the pros and cons of a possible coexistence between sponsorship and influencer marketing projects, we must first look at the starting point of these two realities.
The athlete is based in the physical world, which is also his first stage: a soccer field, a tennis court, a basketball court, a volleyball court, a mountain, a desert, a paved road; his activity is characterized by interactions with other people: rivals, teammates, a technical entourage. And it is precisely in this physical world that the athlete moves, accrues recognition, makes a journey, obtains recognition, measures his value, and builds and develops his storytelling.
The influencer takes his first steps from a digital world, which is his stage, in this context the physical world becomes in fact only a “scenography” and a background on which to build a narrative, but his story, his value, his storytelling are structured in the digital world and respond to its dynamics.
An athlete has his first recognition when his performance is measured and evaluated in the physical world and, consequently, may decide to use this recognition in the communication of the digital world.
An influencer, on the other hand, builds his recognizability entirely in the digital world.
BEING AND SPEAKING – communicating in the digital world
To pursue a career as an influencer, as we have said, the first and fundamental thing to do is to build an identity in the digital world. An influencer must first choose an area in which to act – in the case of sport, perhaps a discipline – and what he or she must aim for is to attract and grow a community around him or herself that wants to belong to that world, wants to know more and more about it, and decides that that specific influencer is his or her point of reference in that area. This crucial choice can be driven by different reasons: aesthetic sense? Relevant content? Consistency in the context of the environment? Exposed friendships or celebrity acquaintances? Or other elements that exert appeal.
The influencer who succeeds in having a target community in the outdoor world -from trekking, to first steps in climbing, to rainforest exploration… – doesn’t have to excel at what they do, doesn’t necessarily have to have come a long way in that field, have a history of success.
All it takes is for him to be credited in that world through the images – videos and photos – that place him where his community at some point “expects” him to be.
An influencer exists because there is a digital stage that has sets, scripts, co-stars and extras that are consistent with the world the influencer builds around him or her. You don’t even need structured copy, just captions built from the messages you choose to send.
The objective on which success or failure is assessed for an influencer has to do with numbers and percentages: followers, views, engagement.
In order to become a professional athlete the first thing you must build and cherish is a dream, preferably a long lasting one. Without a dream the chances of becoming a professional athlete are ZERO. Because only the strength that a dream can give us can sustain an athlete while going through fatigue, sacrifices and failures.
To be more precise, what creates a professional athlete is a dream transformed into a goal, which grows with him. A goal that must always be measurable in reality.
The field of action of an athlete is always real and measurable, whether it is the athletic track, the soccer field, the red rectangle … Even athletes who do not have a well-defined field of action, do not have rules written by a federation, do not have a federation, however, must be able to transform the goals and fields in something measurable: for example, mountaineers have the summit made of meters and the history of ascents to that peak. Another instrument of measurement in reality is then represented by “opponents” and competitors.
At this point, the main difference between a professional athlete who also communicates himself in the digital world and a sports influencer becomes evident.
An athlete may decide to leverage his or her history, background and storytelling built over years of goals measured and achieved in the real world to speak to the digital world as well.
So an athlete can potentially be suitable for influencer marketing, BUT an influencer will never be an athlete.
However, there is a middle ground between the two categories, actually two:
The athlete who is already at a good point in their career but hasn’t brought home any major successes, in which case the digital stage can become the space/time through which to capitalize on a life dedicated to a sport;
Non-professional athletes who have pursued a dream or passion for sports in parallel with a “normal” life outside of sports. The fact that they have dedicated all their free time to their sport-passion can make them become points of reference for a given community when they decide to share their experiences and acquired knowledge on the digital stage.
THE AUDIENCE – who we’re communicating with
“To each his own audience.”
Is this statement enough to pacify our souls and lead us to believe that everything is simple?
On the contrary, it is a statement that should push us to try to understand even better who the audience is. And not only in terms of target audience because today the numbers are much more “jumbled” than some time ago. If we want to communicate effectively in the digital world we have to look at everyone: monitor the trends of the youngest, most vulnerable and dynamic targets to try to predict their next move and at the same time pay attention to where and how those with wallets move (which I remind you are always the oldest in Italy, the myth of the 30-year-old millionaire remains in the USA).
What I mean is that reasoning in “honest” terms about the role and importance of the audience also means letting go of the snobbish attitude of those who know a lot about how the digital world works (in the end, the wallet always rules).
Beyond the (more or less scrupulous) targeting, one of the things on which we must focus some of our attention are the transversal behaviors that have a sociological, philosophical, psychological, anthropological impact… and from these we generate the most important question that dictates the law on the digital stage:
How is content being enjoyed? What has it come to?
To speed of fruition, little dedicated attention, zero in-depth analysis, generation of opinions not necessarily based on facts but on other opinions that dominate thanks to SEO, zero culture of the topic, and visual and textual language that fit this logic.
While I admit this is the thing that scares me the most since I come from the belief “words shape thought and thought shapes behavior,” in this context I’m simply interested in pointing out that we practitioners are all inclined to respect the will of the audience, especially the paying audience.
Which means that the distinction between influencers and athletes (and the shades of gray in between) on the communication level is not so easy to make.
And beware, this does not mean that the solution is to wash your hands of it, this awareness must above all remind us that it is very important to be vigilant, to be honest, to be respectful, to be loyal, towards your audience, towards your client.Values that are still valid beyond the generational boundary of the baby boomers.
Values that if we can preserve and make our own can help us to bring out the differences and peculiarities that distinguish influencers and athletes.
For a few years now, in the world of sports and, more specifically, in the world of sports marketing, there has been a topic that has been taking up a lot of space: the trend, and consequently the usefulness, of giving space to influencer marketing activities within company budgets, even for companies with sports DNA.
If we broaden our view, this is certainly not a “new” topic, but then again, it is a well-known fact that “if it happens in fashion today, we’ ll see it in sports two years from now”. It is true that in this specific case, however, I want to think that the reason is not to be found in this old tradition (or bug) of physiological delay of the sports world in the fashions of the moment, but in the immune system of marketing and communication strategies of the companies that are the leaders of the sports world inextricably linked to
to the unbreakable and unquestionable emotional connection of the brand with its audience through high-level ambassadors, real sportsmen who do real things, in a real world and who feel real emotions doing what they do.
As professionals born and raised in sports marketing and communications, we’ve been dealing with change – albeit not abrupt change – for a few years now, and we’ve found ourselves pondering the topic several times.
It’s clear that as experts in sports marketing, first as managers of teams of athletes in companies and then as managers of athletes as freelancers, when influencer marketing was introduced into the world of sports we had an initial reaction of rejection. It is known that novelty and change are always scary first. And they generate the first questions that bring with them doubts and negative criticism.
THE QUESTION – is a partnership possible?
So from our own experience we approached the phenomenon, and fortunately in doing so we adopted the attitude we always try to have when looking at something new: an openness to the Eastern philosophy of inclusion rather than exclusion. So it is that before giving in to the natural instinct of defense and closure – “What’s that guy doing? Can he pretend to be an ironman?? And look how many listen to him…” -we tried to better understand what was happening, what new dynamics the phenomenon could give birth to and grow, looking at it a little closer.
And the first question we felt like answering is:
Are we really faced with a choice, a crossroads? Or perhaps a sponsorship program can coexist with an influencer marketing plan? And if so, in what way?
On the surface, sponsorship and influencer marketing may seem very similar: in both cases, a brand pays a subject a certain amount of money (and/or with product) and in return, the subject promotes the brand and products among its fans.
But there is meanwhile an important difference that has to do with duration: sponsorships are done for long periods of time (usually multi-year), while influencer marketing collaborations are temporary and usually calculated on X number of posts to be published in a given time and in most cases, campaigns do not last more than a few weeks.
What we’d like to do now, with a series of articles on the topic, is to try to look at the two marketing activities from different perspectives and try to understand how one influences the other.