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Right Match


In the Lebanese shy sports marketing environment, some local brands are still making it

After the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi and the recent UEFA Champions League, the next and biggest sports – and ad – event of the year, is the 2014 FIFA World Cup. “Leading Lebanese and global brands know that, every four years between June and July, their consumers will be glued to their TV sets or dragged by their friends to watch the games elsewhere. In fact, the World Cup is the only sporting event on the planet with close to 260 million viewers just for the final game,” says communication manager at Leo Burnett, Samer Makarem. While some only recently jumped on the sports marketing bandwagon for the upcoming World Cup, many brands and agencies have spent years growing the discipline around the world and in the region.

Kick off.

As per regional brand leader and acting general manager at TBWA\RAAD, Charbel Khoury, globalization gave birth to sports marketing. He says, in the past two decades, globalization has become a de facto trend that created new consumer behaviors. To cope with this change, a lot of prominent brands have set sail toward becoming global, which required a paradigm shift in brand strategies. This important milestone begged the question of how to ensure global reach, taking into account language and cultural barriers. “Marketers and communication gurus soon came to realize that sports and music are the two avenues that can cross those cultural barriers. Thus, a new discipline, called ‘marketing through sports’ saw the light in the ’80s and, thanks to the expansion of sports in the past three decades, this avenue gained ground swiftly and exponentially,” says Khoury.

“Overall, brands that stay ahead in the marketplace are those that are able to be relevant and present in the lives of their consumers or potential consumers without setting sales as their first objective – and sports marketing helps to achieve this,” says Makarem. The fact is that major sports events are tempting for brands, given that their viewership and consumer involvement are extremely high. “When brands want to make sure their pieces of communication are seen, all of a sudden they can find all types of consumers coming together for this sports event,” says Makarem. “There was a time when a certain brand used to sponsor sports events for the sake of being associated with the right caliber. For example, watch brand Rolex has always been a famous sponsor of both golf and tennis tournaments, while Bank BNP Paribas sponsors tennis tournament, Roland Garros. However, the trend has shifted and today’s modern consumer is both interested and proud to lead a healthy, fit lifestyle; this creates new opportunities for brands to stay in touch with consumers and further speak their language through sports partnerships. While doing so, a brand also potentially links its values to the positive ones of sports and health,” says strategic planning director at Impact BBDO, Roy Nammour. Makarem agrees, stressing on the fact that many human stories, such as self-evolution, pain, perseverance, challenges in the face of adversity, are related to sports and help brands to convey the overall message.

“There is always a sports marketing solution for any brand, whether it is a capital good or an FMCG, a gold watch or a can of juice. The sports product should reflect the brand identity and character, match the audience group and go in line with the media character of the vehicle that is broadcasting the sports event,” says regional director of Memac Ogilvy sports management, Karim Younes. Sports marketing strategies can range from sports integration to direct sponsorships and star endorsements. According to Younes, successful sports integration strategies include MasterCard’s Player Mascots Program, which awarded 22 children the chance to accompany a player onto the pitch at the beginning of a Champions League match, and Ford’s Drive to Wembly competition, when the automotive brand gave away 364 tickets to the UEFA finals and created a series of short, football-inspired ads featuring the newly launched vehicle Kuga, along with the UEFA anthem.

Among global successful sponsorship tie-ups, Younes mentions watch brand Hublot and the Scuderia Ferrari F1 team, energy drink Red Bull and the Formula One (its presence at the first F1 race victory in 2011 made the drinks company the best exposed brand at the Australian  Grand Prix, with coverage exceeding $14.1 million), Evian and the Wimbeldon ATP (the brand managed to gain the highest ever top-of-mind awareness, online shopping visitation and dramatic growth in sales during the summer season, reaching 24 percent) and fashion luxury brand Giorgio Armani and Cristiano Ronaldo (the latest big sponsorship).

Talking about star endorsements, Younes says, when the brand’s objective is to ensure association, recognition and, ultimately, increase sales, athlete endorsements and club partnerships are vital, especially since consumers purchase endorsed products based on a bundle of perceived benefits. “However, tie-ups with national teams and federations, events and clubs tend to enjoy a lesser risk than athlete endorsements. Tiger Woods and Lance Armstrong are clear examples of the risk that marketers might undertake if they solely sponsor athletes that turn out to behave badly and consequently fall out of favor with their adoring public. NBA superstar Kobe Bryant’s McDonald’s and Sprite promotions dried up after he was accused of sexual assault in 2004. The case was ultimately dropped, but the companies refused to comment on the reasons for holding Bryant’s endorsement deals. Injury is another risk; Ronaldo could have missed the 2014 World Cup, possibly jeopardizing his $21 million endorsement deals,” says Younes.

“It is worth noticing as well that the improvement and growth in broadcasting and technology, coupled with social networking, play a crucial role in creating opportunities by allowing fans to get closer to athletes and sports personalities. This provides sponsors with an opportunity for two-way communications and engagement and allows for high-quality coverage of sports events as well, playing a greater role in increasing the popularity of the sports industry,” he adds.

Don’t force it.

For general manager of Intermarkets, Sara Assaf, it is better not to go for sports marketing, rather than force some sponsorships or partnerships. “To ensure the success of a sports marketing approach, the link between the brand and the sport should make sense and be relevant, because when a connection between a certain brand and a sport event is forced, the communication will fail,” she explains. As an example, Assaf mentions the World Cup, which targets a wider audience, resulting in sponsorships coming from brands that target the mass. Hence, we won’t see any luxury brand sponsoring such sports event. “It is all about maximizing the return and optimizing the investment at the end of the day,” says Assaf. “By sponsoring an event attended by one million people, the brand is investing a sum targeting one million people; if the brand’s core target is just 100,000 people, the ROI won’t be achieved,” she explains and mentions one of Intermarkets’ accounts, Lebanese beer Almaza, for which it will be relevant and efficient to use the World Cup indirectly in its upcoming advertising campaigns, since whenever we say football, we think of beer. “Almaza will never be related to a tennis or golf event, for its world doesn’t match the world of these sports,” adds Assaf. Speaking about ROIs, Elie Geahchan, FP7’s director in charge of brands such as McDonald’s, Ford Motors, Bank Byblos, among others, says, in Lebanon, brands still prefer, most of the time, to go with the traditional 30-second TVCs, instead of investing in a sports event that won’t ensure the needed ROIs.

Unequipped ground.

“In Lebanon, politics is involved even in sports, which makes local sports events risky for advertisers; local brands get scared to associate themselves with a sports club and be perceived as [politically] biased,” says Geahchan. “In the early ’00s, every local brand was in on the hype around Lebanese basketball, because of the huge buzz around the league from fans,” says Leo Burnett’s Makarem, who remembers a Libby’s Juice commercial when its nationwide equity shot up, because it featured two basketball superstars in its communication and this was aspirational to the Lebanese youth. “Unfortunately, the decline of our local sports leagues in recent years has given advertisers a limited spectrum when it comes to local sports. We have a lot of fans, but not much hype built around local sports events. Hence, rare are brands that use sports partnerships in their communications,” says Makarem.

Ogilvy’s Younes agrees on the problems of the Lebanese sports scene, but is a bit more optimistic. “On a local level, Lebanon has been significantly affected by the economic downturn and political instabilities, which have consequently backfired on sports and, consequently, sponsors. The lack of spectatorship in football stadiums and the basketball federation’s chaotic and politically lead elections have put both local football and basketball in jeopardy. However, basketball is back now and the FIBA has lifted its sanction on the LBF; football is slowly recovering and motorsports and volleyball are on the right track for local popularity. This revival is driven by the live TV coverage of those events, which ensures further popularity (for example, Al Jadeed TV and the Local Football League, LBC endorsing basketball, MTV set to promote volleyball and OTV and Rallye of Lebanon). As a result, sponsors are expected to start approaching those products driven by the wide reach of those media vehicles that exclusively and aggressively promote them,” says Younes. “Today, sporting events are a multifaceted and multimedia industry, with a growing appeal to an ever-increasing number of Lebanese fanatics. This is driven by Lebanon’s young dynamic population; emotional, very loyal to their clubs and stars and consistently craving for sports content. The clients, unfortunately, aren’t able to realize the opportunity yet,” he adds.

Despite the negative facet of the Lebanese sports industry, a number of successful activities and partnerships are, in fact, happening. Mostly, FMCGs, electronics, telecom operators, banks and automotive vehicles “consume” local sports events in their communications. In 2007, Bank Audi had Maxime Chaya as its corporate ambassador; in 2012, Alfa Telecom sponsored the Lebanese Football League and Leo Burnett developed a piece of communication on the unity of the Lebanese people when it comes to cheering for their national pride, as the brand’s purpose is “bringing people together”; from 2009 till 2013, Blom Bank was sponsoring the Beirut Marathon, a major local sports event that has been attracting advertisers for the past few years. Recently, Ford Motors was the official sponsor of the 2014 Rallye of Lebanon and the Sagesse basketball team, while the Central Bank of Lebanon officially sponsored the 2014 Beirut Marathon, among others. Impact BBDO’s Nammour mentions Al-Mawarid Bank’s #FITLEB program – a national motivational platform that started out with the sponsorship of the Beirut Marathon 10K women’s race and developed into one of the bank’s main activities: organizing fitness sessions with professional trainers on the streets of Beirut, launching a competition on social media inciting people to work out, participate and win prizes, introducing banking products and solutions and propagating the movement through traditional media. “What seemed to be a challenge at first quickly turned out to be a positive opportunity: people quickly grasped the idea of AMB being a fit bank and started to join the movement and this positively elevated the brand’s equity,” he says.

However, Ogilvy’s Younes says brands with international sponsorship tie-ups such as Coca-Cola, Hyundai, Sony, Visa, Castrol, Budweiser, Adidas, McDonalds, J&J – the last three being the official sponsors of the 2014 World Cup – enjoy greater advantage over other local Lebanese brands and can benefit further by locally activating those tie-ups. “The only pitfall is the lack of a data and research currency, as well as pricing accuracies that assess a sponsorship’s ROI,” he says. Speaking of the importance of the World Cup for Lebanese brands, Younes says: “In Lebanon, marketers integrate the World Cup within their communication plans to secure a bond between the brand, the fanatic and the sports product – the FIFA World Cup, in this case. Sponsors want to be embedded within the 2014 World Cup, provide consumers with a dream experience in Brazil, associate with players; they even capitalize on the 2014 World Cup as a tool to enhance brand recall and awareness.”  Not only established brands create hype for using this global event in their advertising campaigns, but emerging ones see it as a convenient opportunity for them to grow. One of these is the new Belgium watch brand Twelve, its name and designs are built around football; “twelve” being the number of players in a football team and its designs inspired from the 32 national football teams participating in the 2014 World Cup. “The passion for sports is similar to the passion for watches. This is why each watch brand is associated with a certain sport – Rolex with golf, Breitling with aviation, Tag Heuer with racing and Twelve with football,” says Philippe Khoury, managing partner at JP 10, the official distributor of Twelve in Lebanon.

Unlike other Arab markets, the Lebanese market should consider building more on international opportunities for “home” investments, since the local sports industry isn’t at its peak. “Football leagues in Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar have all been recognized as top ten leagues by the region’s highest football body, the Asian Football Confederation (AFC). Sadly, Lebanon is still falling far behind with a very shy room for any kind of improvement,” concludes Younes.

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