Great B2B Sports Sponsorships – and the activation strategies that make them winners

Because business decision-makers are sports fans too

September 18, 2015

It’s easy to think of the sporting arena as an environment for big consumer brands. After all, teams and tournaments generate huge TV and live audiences – and they align with very personal loyalties and motivations on the part of their fans. Watch the Rugby World Cup over the next few weeks though, and you might be surprised at how many essentially B2B brands have made themselves a part of the occasion. It’s proof that, with the right strategy behind it, sports sponsorship can be just as powerful a tool for those targeting professional audiences. After all, business buyers are sports fans too - and just as passionate about the experience as anybody else. Here are just five examples of B2B brands that have developed winning gameplans for leveraging that passion:

Société Générale and CASG

No Rugby World Cup sponsor has been associated with the game for longer than Société Générale. The multinational financial services business first formed a Rugby team for its employees back in 1903, believing that the sport’s principles of respect, trust and solidarity would help to encourage morale and more effective working. The Club Athlétique de la Société Générale (CASG) went on to become one of the most successful sides in France, and is now embedded within the identity of top French club Stade Francais CASG. It’s not just the longevity of its Rugby association that marks Société Générale out, though. It’s also excelled on leveraging that association in new and innovative ways over time – and benefited from focusing on a single sport to associate its brand closely with particular values. Besides sponsoring the Rugby World Cup since 1991, Société Générale has partnered with more than 400 amateur clubs in France, closely supported the development of Rugby Sevens, and awards the Trophée des Essais for clubs with the strongest offensive performance in a season. And it boasts world-class players like Nick Farr-Jones, Fabian Galthié and Jim Staples amongst its former employees.

The Johnstone’s Paint Trophy

A decade of sponsoring this football cup competition for lower league sides has made Johnstone’s comfortably the most famous trade paint supplier in the UK, with awareness and recognition that any brand would envy. And the firm hasn’t settled for just lending its name to the trophy. Taking the silverware around local stores helps to boost footfall and activity, whilst last year’s Paint Pot Challenge contest, in which footballers attempted to kick a ball into an inflatable paint pot, earned more than 22,000 views on YouTube. Johnstone’s shows the benefits of identifying a sporting opportunity that aligns perfectly with its business, and can appeal to relevant decision-makers on a deeply emotive level. For fans of lower league clubs, which include a lot of contractors and tradesmen, a trip to Wembley for a cup final is a rare and hugely important experience. And a brand that takes an interest in their teams specifically (no Premier League or Championship sides play in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy) is all the more worthy of loyalty.

Team Oracle USA

How can you make enterprise software genuinely exciting whilst building affection for a brand that was once most famous for making its founder rich? It helps when you choose to sponsor a sport that makes that brand an indivisible part of a national team’s identity. And it certainly doesn’t hurt when that sport involves fast-moving, powerful, futuristic-looking technology. Since Oracle started sponsoring America’s Cup yachts in 2003, Oracle Team USA has helped drive awareness to new heights, and build emotive appeal in a category that’s not always associated with it. The benefits reached new heights in 2013, when the team’s incredible come-from-behind America’s Cup triumph was arguably the biggest sporting story of the year.

IBM and Grand Slam Tennis

Sports sponsorships are an increasingly attractive strategy for technology companies, since they provide an ideal showcase for expertise in making sense of data. SAP (with the NFL), Dimension Data (at the Tour de France) and EMC (which designed the IT infrastructure for the Lotus F1 team) have all demonstrated the value of this approach. However none have brought it to life with more creative flair than IBM, in its support of Grand Slam Tennis. IBM SlamTracker doesn’t just provide tennis fans with real-time match statistics; it also mines more than eight years of data on individual players and previous matches, to predict how a contest will play out. This Keys to the Match feature, gives fans the same encyclopedic knowledge as a pundit, commentator or coach, spotlighting the areas where each player must improve if they are to win. It’s a powerful example of Big Data in action that feels like a natural part of the sport itself.

DHL and the Rugby World Cup

It may not be able to match fellow World Cup sponsor Société Générale for longevity, but DHL is working hard to make its own support of the Rugby World Cup work amongst B2B audiences. The brand profile it gains as a top-tier sponsor is backed up by a practical role handling logistics for the tournament, and issuing regular updates on the preparations through social media. And its wider social media campaign is designed to leverage the fact that many logistics decision-makers are also rugby fans. The #Scrumshare twitter campaign encourages them to share photos of themselves scrummaging with any object that takes their fancy (from London buses to Darth Vader), in order to win World Cup tickets.