Branding Sports Events

Creating A Sports Event Identity That Lasts

By Selena Chavis

Event branding involves creating an experience and telling the story. In an ever-evolving competitive landscape for amateur sporting events, industry professionals agree these components are what give events name recognition and longevity and secure sponsorships.

The bar has definitely been raised in the realm of sports events branding; consumers and sponsors alike expect branding initiatives to go beyond name recognition, said Scott Drummond, founder and director of brand strategy with Forty Forty, a nontraditional branding and advertising agency whose clients include NFL Players, Citizens Bank and Major League Baseball’s (MLB) Atlanta Braves and Philadelphia Phillies.

“Everybody has the same goal—to build something that emotionally connects to people,” Drummond said, suggesting that what’s relevant to professional sports in the way of branding also rings true for amateur sports, though event planners may have to be more creative as cash may not flow as freely. “You’re building something that you want to have long-term equity and value.

Crucial to the strategy of branding an event is the ability to connect to key sponsorship dollars, said Gregg Bennett, assistant professor of sport management with Texas A&M University. “You’re looking at creating an identity. It’s critical that your identity reflects the positioning of the event. Companies are trying to brand themselves to the event that identifies with their target audience. It’s an identity match.”

Alex Baldwin, vice president of Fenway Sports Group’s consulting and events division, agreed. “Over the years, companies have become much more savvy,” she said, drawing from her experience as an event planner. “The opportunities available to market and capitalize on your brand are many.”

Basic Branding Principles

Every branding strategy should follow some basic principles, according to Drummond, starting with a planner’s ability to identify the target audience. “Who is the audience, and what’s going to connect with them?”

Emphasizing that there are many advertising and media outlets to pursue, Drummond suggested that planners of amateur sporting events—who may have limited resources to pull from—should identify carefully which medium will best reach the intended audience.

Forty Forty created an “identity match” that provided appeal to a wide target audience for both Citizens Bank and the Philadelphia Phillies. Using nontraditional forms of advertising via large signage, interactive displays and “high-touch memorable experiences” with the game, Forty Forty developed a win-win situation for the two organizations through sponsorships, visibility and name recognition.

Bennett points to the identity match between PepsiCo’s SoBe Beverages and the Gravity Games as examples of two organizations that understood their target audience. Playing off of the extreme nature of the Gravity Games, an event featuring Freestyle Motocross, Skateboarding, Wakeboarding, BMX and Aggressive In-Line Skating, PepsiCo successfully branded SoBe with the games through extreme colors and cutting-edge positioning—successfully reaching the 16- to 24-year-old demographic.

“SoBe really did some unique things,” Bennett said, recalling such ideas as putting a decorated school bus in the Festival Village of the event for patrons to try the product. “Before that, SoBe had a lot of identity issues, but [company executives] knew what was attractive to that particular audience; they knew what would visually appeal to them.”

SoBe’s branding efforts with the 2003 Gravity Games garnered the 2003 Event Marketer Magazine Gold Award for best activation of a sports property, according to Brian Stephenson, senior marketing manager of sports and grassroots at SoBe Beverages.

Our goal has always been to use innovative sports and grassroots marketing to build a passionate fan base of die-hard SoBe consumers,” he said, adding that SoBe currently sponsors the U.S. Open of Snowboarding, the Teva Mountain Games, The Eastern Surfing Association and the XCEL Pro surf contest and has partnerships with Burton Snowboards and Cannondale Mountain Bikes. “We attend and sample at all of their events throughout the year and try to build life-long SoBe fans one sample at a time.”

Telling The Story

Because the consumer and sponsorship markets have become much more savvy and have higher expectations of branding initiatives, Baldwin emphasized the need to create an experience for the audience by telling the story. “Be thoughtful in how you reach your consumer. Provide something of real, tangible value,” she said.

Bennett agreed, noting that “you can’t create an identity if you don’t tell the story.”

When conceptualizing the Citizens Bank Park, the home of the Philadelphia Phillies, Drummond said the story centered around the history of baseball and was weaved into every experience, creating a connection to sports aficionados and the city at large.

Likewise, the Deutsche Bank Championship golf tournament built its own brand when entering the Boston market. “[Event organizers] were thoughtful about understanding where they are,” Baldwin said, adding that the sports landscape in Boston is very competitive—encompassing such professional teams as the MLB’s Boston Red Sox, National Basketball Association’s Boston Celtics and National Hockey League’s Boston Bruins. “They knew they had to bring something to the sports community that would knock their socks off.”
Since competitive golf had not been in Boston since the Ryder Cup in the late 1990s, the story became how the Deutsche Bank Championship would bring golf back to the community. Deutsche Bank partnered with the Tiger Woods Foundation and, according to Baldwin, the rest is history.
“In four very short years, this event has catapulted itself to one of the premier golf events,” she said.
Authenticity also plays a key role in telling the story, according to Drummond; the challenge is creatively weaving the story into the event and maintaining the authenticity. “We take players’ stories into events and strive for authenticity, with no appearance of scripting,” he said. “People are going to care about it more if it’s true to the sport.”

Visual Appeal

 Effective strategies for creating the visual language and look include building off the story and avoiding clichés, Drummond said. “There’s so much copycat stuff out there. Consumers are looking for something fresh.”
Drummond said it’s also important to choose or design a visual look that will work well across many media platforms, advertising outlets and supplemental mediums. “When event planners are thinking about branding an event, they have to think of ways to create ancillary momentum,” he said. The visual components of a branding campaign will likely have to be used in more creative and nontraditional advertising mediums, because “budgets can’t support endless advertising.”