Guest blog by Ben Mitchell
CSM Sport & Entertainment
In this ESA Member guest blog, Ben Mitchell leans on his primary research to address how we can use sports partnerships to shift consumer behaviour towards becoming more environmentally sustainable.
The climate crisis is exerting a substantial impact on our world. Everywhere you look, its impact is being felt, and the evidence linking sport to climate change is steadily mounting, as numerous facets of the industry prove to be carbon-intensive. A recent report form the Rapid Transmission Alliance has shown that the sport sector produces the same level of carbon emissions as a medium-sized country such as Tunisia.
At the same time, we understand the role sport can play as a harbinger of change, not least when it comes to climate action. Rights holders and brands, perhaps more so than governments, have stronger relationships with, and better represent the interests of, everyday consumers. By helping to fulfil and support consumers’ green intentions, partnerships in sport have the power to ignite behavioural change and chart a course towards greater environmental sustainability.
Nevertheless, the current approach to creating partnerships with sustainability at their core is fragmented and uncoordinated. Rights holders are in the habit of breaking up their rights. Instead, they should be taking a more holistic approach to identifying partners and areas where they can work together better, allowing for each to contribute to sustainable development in a way that is authentic to their brand.
If multiple brands can come together to share the same message and create a collaborative vision, the combined sphere of influence will increase the impact of the campaign.
Take the Manchester City ‘Water inspired away kit’. Puma and Xylem have identified synergies where Puma have been able to adopt more sustainable water usage practices to make a new away kit, inspired by Xylem’s global work with City group. A unified approach, resulting in a compelling story that helps overcome contemporary sustainability issues.
So how can rights holders, agencies and brand partners work together to reach that North Star?
My primary research consisted of conducting 10 interviews with heads of partnerships from globally recognised brands, rights holders and marketing agencies. The result? A step-by-step process that can be developed to execute environmentally sustainable proof points in major sports partnerships.
Creating a cross-functional team
The first step is establishing a cross-functional team. The effective execution of any partnership with a sustainability focus will rely on the use of integrated sustainability specialists working across the brand, rights holder and agency. With passion and expertise, these individuals will enable more informed conversations around sustainability, and can play a dedicated role in executing the vision:
“The ideal support would be to have a sustainability sports communications expert who they could bring in and be like: hey, we have someone who’s done 1000s of these campaigns across brands and they know exactly the topic that you should be talking about in this way. This would be a very valuable asset.” (Brand 2)
That team can also maintain a fluid dialogue through annual planning cycles, ensuring sustainability remains at the heart of the partnership strategy and withstanding challenges such as a change in management.
Understanding your consumer’s concerns
Knowing what makes your audience tick. It’s rule number one for any marketing campaign, and it’s no different when it comes to sustainability. Rather than pre-empting what the problems are, or making assumptions on what the day’s pressing environmental concerns should be, listen to your audience. The world view of your partnership team will vary from society at large.
Focus groups and surveys with integrated questions related to sustainability will identify consumer trends and the environmental concerns that are engaging your consumer base the most.
“I would put it to fan focus groups and say does this interest you and, if not, why not? And if it does, why does it interest you now? Sometimes we’re trying to solve problems, but we’re deciding what the problems are” (Brand 3)
Working towards a common cause
You’ve got your cross-functional team, and you know what is keeping your audience up at night. The next step is to agree on that North Star.
Through a combination of consumer and brand research, and consistent dialogue between brand, rights holder and agency, the next step is to find and implement initiatives that align with the capabilities and objectives of each party.
Rather than diluting the message, the collective share of voice that comes with uniting behind a common cause will likely stretch much further than each stakeholder’s individual ecosystem, raising the profile not just of the campaign but of each brand itself.
Whilst brands are often in the habit of competing against one another, when it comes to sustainability, collaboration is key in ensuring they communicate effectively.
”It is a strategic advantage to bring our partners together. We’re able to deliver the mission via multiple brands, which the audience knows, and it’s also bringing the big powers together…Our approach has kind of always been ‘let’s bring more to the party to create impact’.” (Brand 2)
Measuring the meaningful metrics
The bottom line. Three words that haunt every partnership strategy planning session, and often put paid to good ideas. Thankfully, we are now starting to see “the triple bottom line” swapped in – a model that focuses not just on profit, but also people and the planet.
When it comes to sustainability partnerships, there needs to be a shift towards focusing on bottom-of-funnel metrics to create lasting behaviour change.
Specifically, the metrics used need to allow for the contextual and motivational barriers that prevent the adoption of more environmentally sustainable behaviour. These include limited access to sustainable products, high costs of sustainable products, cultural norms, or simply a lack of knowledge.
Sport sponsorship is a great way to overcome these barriers due to its influence. Working within that framework, how about measuring partnership success based on the following three indicators?
- Awareness and knowledge of personal impact on the environment and how this affects behaviour choices
- Actual behaviour change
- How programme resources are used.
As the partnership progresses, success will then be measured by looking at the ongoing behavioural impact the campaign has against the benchmark. With a long-term partnership, having consistent proof points that can be fed back to senior management will increase confidence to maintain budgets.