Sports marketing needs to evolve from ‘tried but tired’ strategies to those that result in better stories and greater interaction with target audiences. There are plenty of opportunities that brands can explore in this context.

“You are known by the company you keep”, goes the old saying. For the longest time, brands seeking to use sport as a marketing vehicle have taken that to heart.

We have all been willing (or unwilling) consumers of the massive hoarding where Dhoni’s face is larger than the TV he is endorsing. Or the Sachin Tendulkar TV ad for inverters that you can watch during the summer power cut only if you are already the proud owner of…an inverter. There is also the full-page newspaper ad featuring, most prominently, Virat Kohli’s new haircut. Sponsoring events or their broadcasts through advertising, logo placement, product placement and other techniques has been equally commonplace.

The use of sport and celebrity for brand exposure and visibility is seen as a tried and tested marketing technique that helps brands cut through the clutter and be noticed. After all, which brand manager ever got fired for contracting a Tendulkar or sponsoring an IPL team? OK, perhaps there have been one or two. But in the changing landscape of Indian sport, this approach is going from tried to tired. This is simply because of investment opportunities that lie elsewhere in a rapidly developing environment where our athletes, across a wide variety of sports disciplines, are building amazing stories for all of us to enjoy and consume.

This is also at a time of increased distraction among audiences, with multi-tasking being the norm. There are fewer brand conversations happening with the unwilling – people switch channels during ad breaks, get on social media while at a cricket match, speak on the phone while sitting in a taxi, or text while crossing a street. This means that audiences are making more granular choices regarding the interactions they wish to have and those they wish to ignore. Much of the communication is now both personal (often one-to-one) and personalized (demand and behaviour driven). The finite resources are now audience time and viewer attention.

Brands must look for ways to respond to these changes. This is where the approach of sports marketing is moving from association to authorship.

What does this new world look like? It is in fact already under construction. Yes, you will continue to see big-buck endorsements and they will have their role. But there are many more opportunities and tools of engagement at all levels. The recipient of a piece of brand communication today wants to be less of a sports spectator and more of a participant. For example, we are already seeing the rise of marathons and other running events where the focus shifts from passivity to involvement and which are drawing new audiences and sponsors into sport.

The spotlight is also turning to shine on previously sidelined categories – more women’s sport, for example. There is greater support to and participation in the journeys of junior, Paralympic and Special Olympic athletes. Sponsors are creating and curating new events, tournaments and leagues in unusual or niche sports and in local areas that their constituents care about. And others are seeking to expand sporting horizons and definitions through extreme and adventure sports.

Sport helps create iconic moments, a brand marketers dream. But iconic moments need hard work, preparation and investment in plenty of non-iconic moments as well. This approach requires a degree of patience and foresight, both challenges in the unforgiving world of brands. But audiences are telling brands that they respect these attributes and that they value the authenticity and salience of the messages that emerge from these journeys. When a brand’s conversations are personalized, failure is not a liability. It is more important to have been the author and to be recognized as having tried and cared when it truly mattered. The iconic moment is just the icing on the cake – a true bonus for an already worthy effort.

As Indian sports takes big and assured strides into its exciting future, the opportunities for brands are here, now and not necessarily expensive. First steps could simply involve supporting an athlete’s journey – through funding equipment, training, nutrition or travel to a tournament. It could mean committing long-term support or mentorship through the long and winding road that is a sports career. Or brands could delve further and participate in building a sports property or event that resonates with their values and attracts audiences that are important to them.

The resulting stories can then be communicated – both internally and externally – with the authenticity, emotion and feeling that sport generates. Investing in sport in this way will inevitably result in the creation of stories worth telling and will actively help change perceptions – about ourselves, others, our nation and our world.
From being spoken at to being spoken with, audiences will reciprocate.

Nandan Kamath is a sports lawyer and Managing Trustee of...