Lessons for brands from sponsorship marketing

Even with events cancelled, MKTG's Michael Beckerman says Reebok and Chipotle are showing how the practice remains relevant.

“Authenticity” and “empathy” are words that get used in discussions with clients a lot, says Michael Beckerman.

Beckerman, president and CEO of sponsorship specialist agency MKTG, says those words had always been a part of sponsorship planning and strategy. But in the wake of the global COVID-19 pandemic, when most sports and in-person events are being cancelled for the coming weeks and months, he says they’ve taken on a new meaning.

“There’s an opportunity [for brands] to provide a service, or provide content, to help us get through what is a very difficult time,” he says.

Marketing that’s merely “transactional” isn’t important right now, says Beckerman. “That would be remarkably short-sighted. Brands are instead finding the right context and the right reason to connect with their customer base, and the right ones are less concerned about the commercialization of things.”

That means less activity like digital naming rights or banners alongside live-streams, and more in terms of content development and ways to add value into everyday lives.

For example, he says, fast-casual chain Chipotle is hosting “virtual hangouts” on the increasingly popular video conferencing tool Zoom. Beckerman himself participated, joking, “It’s not very on-brand for me, but it was great from a Chipotle perspective.” He says actually planning and hosting activities and creating content that “fills a void” will build long-term brand support.

Another brand he says is winning at being authentic and empathetic is Reebok. As most gyms across the Americas have shuttered temporarily, online workout programs have become all the rage. While Canadian chain GoodLife has mad a selection of Les Mills classes available digitally, Reebok is among the brands that has created a YouTube series for at-home workouts, which Beckerman says is the perfect combination of on-brand and something that contributes to the social good.

Brands are having to approach marketing from a cross-disciplinary angle, he says. “Looking backward, a lot of brands thought about, for example, CSR initiatives as a separate strategy, and I think we’ll see a blurring of CSR strategies with mass strategies and sponsorship strategies, providing a more integrated look and feel out in the marketplace.”

But that in turn has created a new shift with how brands work with agencies. As a specialty shop, Beckerman says MKTG has always aimed to cover a wider breadth of brand strategy, but lines are now blurring much more.

“Right now, whether you’re a CRM agency or a sponsorship agency, you’re playing the role of a brand steward right now, and not really worrying about what kind of channel an effort is going to manifest itself in,” he says. “I feel like for us, more of our conversations are around brand stewardship and less specifically about sponsorship. Certainly, we’re a sponsorship expert and we’ve got that lens, but we’re sitting around the table with our client partners, as well as our agency partners, and having to now approach things in terms of what’s best for the brand.”