13April

New thinking & strategic revolution

Posted by - Whitestone International

The driving force behind the need for innovation is the marked change in people’s attitudes and behaviours. In no small part this can be attributed to the technological and communications revolution we are living in and our exposure and access to ever more stimulating experiences directly competing for our time and money – within and outside of sports”.

Chris Lightfoot, CEO of Whitestone International has been working with sports federations and brands for over 17 years and understands the need for strategic and creative innovation in the sector. Here he reflects on how the industry has evolved, his personal experiences working with one of the biggest sports brands, the FIFA World Cup, and where the industry needs to start heading for tomorrow.

When João Havelange became FIFA President in 1974, he made campaign promises that had to be supported by commercial income directly to FIFA on a scale that had never been seen before. Turning to Horst Dassler and Patrick Nally, who brought in Stu Cross from Coca-Cola, what happened next is considered by many to have initiated a wave of thinking that gave rise to a new generation of sports business founded on managing and commercialising rights.

At that time, the approach taken by the FIFA team was innovative and much like the foundations set by the likes of Mark McCormack and IMG it shaped the sports industry that we know today. However, a new wave of thinking is now required to take the industry to the next level for the future.

The driving force behind the need for innovation is the marked change in people’s attitudes and behaviours. In no small part this can be attributed to the technological and communications revolution we are living in and our exposure and access to ever more stimulating experiences directly competing for our time and money – within and outside of sports. Seismic shifts in the public’s attitudes to entertainment are leading to ever-rising levels of expectation and new patterns of behaviour – the response required is one of investment and innovation. In the increasingly competitive and commoditised landscape of sports and sponsorship markets, it’s naïve to assume that what created success in the past will do so in the future and that the industry’s lucrative position can be sustained without adapting to continuous cultural changes.

At that time, the approach taken by the FIFA team was innovative and much like the foundations set by the likes of Mark McCormack and IMG it shaped the sports industry that we know today. However, a new wave of thinking is now required to take the industry to the next level for the future.

One of the biggest differences between sports and other industries is the level of continuous investment and inward innovation in their products, services and brands. That’s not to say sports is without innovation; but more innovation is required and needs to be driven centrally by the IFs and NGBs in order to fulfil their core mandate of nurturing and growing their sport.

Learning from the past

When the first major wave of investment and innovation in sports occurred in the 1990s, I was lucky enough to be working alongside FIFA, the ATP and others, witnessing first hand the significant strides taken in creating a mixture of internal innovation around sports, the pooling and packaging of rights, and substantial investment in brand strategies. This model set a clear direction for the future, the brand and branding that not only challenged the norm, but importantly, was structured to create intellectual property rights and assets that had significant commercial value and leverage.

At the heart of the first revolution, Patrick Nally and others recognised that major events and sporting properties were under capitalised so they set about developing a new competitive landscape and in 1998 fresh thinking was specifically mandated of FIFA’s marketing partner ISL.

Investment and innovation followed in many forms. As part of the team tasked with delivering this, I was focussed on generating greater value from the FIFA and the FIFA World Cup ‘brands’ and branding. At the time, I was a director of Interbrand and working with the team at ISL. When we began, there was almost no connection between the FIFA brand and the FIFA World Cup brand. The Organisers of the World Cups were national, self funding and largely viewed FIFA as administrators, providers of referees and commercial competitors to their own marketing programmes. This was hard-wired.

The time was ripe for strategic and creative innovation and our work was matched with smart politics by those who managed the relationships. Whilst much has moved on since, the original model put in place has not substantially changed.

FIFA World Cups – 2002, 2006 and beyond

The FIFA World Cup 2002 in Korea and Japan represented a major step change for FIFA on many levels and the opportunity created a new desire for the brand and branding to be something bigger than the former location-date-sport formula. The brand strategy and indeed the branding itself shifted from being ephemeral concepts and became fundamental to the common good, multiplicity of relationships and everyone’s success.

The pivotal event in 2002 would be the first to carry the FIFA name in the title and the first to deliver the ‘FIFA World Cup Trophy’ strategy – derivative of the only physical asset that endured each tournament. It essentially had to reflect and satisfy both co-hosts and simultaneously engage two non-traditional football audiences – both full stadia and a vibrant atmosphere were paramount; and the event IP had to create rights and avoid diluting others. Beyond the occasion itself, the strategy had to be enduring to encompass future events.

When it came to the FIFA World Cup 2006 in Germany, I had started Whitestone International, and my team was hired to balance FIFA’s strategy and champion a narrative driven by Franz Bechambauer. Bechambauer had seen the success of 2002 and wanted to go beyond the ‘safe’ event that Germany could doubtless deliver, and beyond stereotypes and be ‘un-German’. Working with Bechambauer, the LOC, FIFA Marketing and local agency Abold, the narrative was built around the emotion of German football and although it would take the German public a couple of years to understand the kind of event that was being planned, Germany went on to deliver one of the greatest FIFA World Cups to date. The identity signalled the event and the event delivered the identity’s message perfectly.

Reflecting on how FIFA has since evolved the FIFA World Cup brand strategy and branding, by 2010 in South Africa, a monolithic structure had been introduced across FIFA’s properties – one that encompassed even its pinnacle event and provided the local organisers with only a central piece to make their mark. By 2014 the event identity reverted to the ‘FIFA World Cup Trophy’ strategy from 2002, with 2018 continuing the legacy. What does this signify about the FIFA World Cup? Will 2022 and even beyond continue to look back rather than advance forward?

It is time to re-evaluate the strategy. Given that football is a global sport, is there a need for geographical pioneering? Are there other formats that will appeal to different demographics without seeming to patronise? Could every FIFA World Cup be different – allowing each new event the opportunity to bravely progress its messaging, branding and presentation, thereby developing new narratives that deepen the sport’s impact and potential? Given technological and cultural shifts, perhaps the time has come to challenge everything?

Brand innovation and investment

The pace of social change and media evolution is frenetic. We await the next big thing as quickly as we discard the recently new, now suddenly prehistoric. The never-ending appetite for sports, both new and traditional, has to be served to multiple-screen generations with each interface providing added value to the fans and stakeholders.

The case for investment in the brand, and in particular innovation of the brand, is unequivocally a strong one. Revenues of sports brands that invest in innovative strategies and ever evolving identities and creative expression outstrip those that don’t.

It’s easy for an event – particularly a global one – to prioritise infrastructure development over the need to evolve the brand and branding infrastructures. Yet, a strategy that “worked last time” can seriously hinder creativity and innovation across all aspects of the occasion. Each event brand must be built from the ground up through a mix of its unique short, medium and long term objectives.

The bottom line

Whilst the catalyst may be the staging of a global event, the brand strategy is fundamental in attracting partners and building long-lasting commercial relationships. Commercial brands understand how to evolve alongside changing consumer behaviours and recognise the need for investment in innovation. More so than ever before, they want to know that sports brands are taking the same approach and that the commercial objectives of the brand are as embedded in the event as the political and sporting ones.

To meet the changing social, commercial and media landscapes, IFs and NGBs need to focus on innovation and use bold strategic and creative thinking. No panacea exists other than hard work and continual evolution, both of which involve the brand as a core asset and sporting, business and consumer tool. With the right expertise and capabilities, the process of insight, development and innovation will usher in a new wave of thinking to rival the strategic revolutions of the past and further elevate sports business to the highest level.

Chris Lightfoot worked with his ISL/FIFA colleague Fraser Peett in the preparation of this article.