Over time, brand marketers have adopted a relatively standard process around sponsorship. Identify objectives. Develop a framework for evaluating and selecting the opportunities most likely to meet those goals. Negotiate benefits and fees with properties. Create activation programs to engage target audiences. Measure results and determine whether changes need to be made.
But as numerous examples from one of the medium’s best practitioners—AB InBev—demonstrate, it is time to add an additional step to the list of sponsorship marketers’ responsibilities: Implement real-time response plans.
Ensuring that a brand has the tools necessary to act on unexpected developments, capitalize on viral moments and take advantage of newsworthy happenings is necessary for brands to maintain relevance and tell a complete story around their partnerships.
Consider just a few examples of how AB has met that challenge in all three ways:
Unexpected developments. When Qatar made a last-minute decision to ban beer sales at FIFA World Cup venues, AB’s Budweiser quickly found a way to make the best of a bad situation, suggesting it would ship the unsold inventory as part of a new Bring Home the Bud campaign awarding a post-tourney celebration to the winning nation.
Viral moments. When a photo from this year’s PGA Championship showed one fan holding a can of Michelob Ultra while all those around him held up phones to try to capture a Tiger Woods drive, AB quickly jumped on the social media attention by turning the picture into a digital ad and signing “the Michelob Ultra Guy” to a marketing contract.
Newsworthy happenings. In 2018, when the Cleveland Browns grabbed attention for a long winless streak, AB’s Bud Light installed locked refrigerators of beer around the city, promising to open them and give away the contents when the team got a win.
Taken separately, these promotions are fun and clever examples of good marketing. But they are not one-off cases of a brand manager or social media coordinator getting lucky with a well-timed message. They are part of a coordinated strategy to not only “seize the moment” but control the narrative.
Time and speed are of the essence in these situations, which requires forethought and commitment. As a column in Inc. noted following the Michelob Ultra Guy moment, “Opportunities like these pop up often if you look for them, but you need a team that is ready and empowered to act quickly.”
Just as important as timeliness, real-time responses allow brands to tell the story they want people to hear, which is not necessarily what the news of the day is. The Inc. piece points out that much of the commentary around the PGA Championship photo was about the price of beer at the event. In Qatar, AB certainly wanted to focus on positive messages rather than focusing on the sales ban. In both cases, the company was able to reframe—and to a large extent—change, the conversation.
While the 2022 World Cup is an extreme example of a brand being required to pivot its activation program, less dramatic circumstances happen all the time across sports and entertainment. The question is how prepared are sponsors to deviate from their plans and course correct to stay relevant?
Some will argue that citing big brands with big budgets as examples to follow is unrealistic. It is true that most marketers cannot match the human and capital resources that companies like AB, Coca-Cola and other top spenders commit to their partnerships and activations.
But when Coke introduced the concept of activating sponsorships decades ago and showed what could be done to make sponsorship a more powerful tool, nobody was suggesting that other brands needed to spend three, four or five times their fees to give their sponsorships legs. It simply opened the industry’s eyes to a new way of thinking about partnerships.
Then, as now, it is up to each marketer to look at the successful approaches of industry leaders and determine how to adopt them in ways that are realistic for their business.