The Blog

Team Sky Is a Lesson to Us All

We are in the middle of a celebrity endorsement tsunami; never in the field of brand marketing has so much been endorsed to so many by so few. To walk London's streets right now is to be introduced to a bewildering array of sports and sports stars; Sunday magazines display their chiseled bodies and ghost-written autobiographies sit in their millions waiting to be shipped.

We are in the middle of a celebrity endorsement tsunami; never in the field of brand marketing has so much been endorsed to so many by so few. To walk London's streets right now is to be introduced to a bewildering array of sports and sports stars; Sunday magazines display their chiseled bodies and ghost-written autobiographies sit in their millions waiting to be shipped.

We take it for granted; it's so familiar it has become almost part of the ritual: the Coke ad signals Christmas, a car playing football is a canary in the mine for the Euros or World Cup.

The rules are clear -- and in really simple terms for many brands, this is about as sophisticated as it gets. Find a celebrity, preferably from the country you plan to run the ads in, stick 'em in an ad and pump it like there's no tomorrow.

The problem is, of course -- despite the millions spent -- if everybody's doing it, how do you stand out? The IOC's solution is legislation i.e. make it illegal for others to market at the same time; but this is surely more of a sop to those handing over the official cash than a realistic way of stopping brand misattribution, or just invisibility, in amongst all the noise.

What has gone largely unheralded this Olympic week is a perfect example of how to do it near-perfectly.

Over a business dinner several years ago, I suggested that cycling was the place to be: big personalities, a perfect conjunction of extreme physical prowess and technology, photogenic and a sport in which the UK already possessed world-beaters (men and women). The problem is, I was assured by an expert present, nobody gives a shit about cycling.

Bradley Wiggins' achievements over the past six weeks rank as high as any by a British sportsman and has certainly captured as many column inches. But what has gone almost unremarked is the role Sky has played, not just as a badge sponsor - examples of which we are currently deluged by - but as an integral and driving force behind Wiggins' and the team's success, and the overall development of the sport in the UK. What other sponsors can make such a claim?

Most sponsorship simply draws down on the equity of the sport and attempts to stick some of that equity to the brand. The brand gets (hopefully) benefit by association; the sport gets money. Sky's sponsorship of cycling starts at the heart of the sport, and forms a true partnership, where brand and sport develop and grow together.

Sky's success is so complete, in fact, it has changed the rules of successful brand partnerships. Its secret is down to the 3As: Ambition, Attitude and Activation.

Activation is the flip-side of sponsorship and brands have long embarked on all manner of activities to add engagement and depth to their commitment. Many do this well (Calsberg and Nike take a bow), but equally frequently it is forgotten or mishandled, leaving a brand's activity looking lopsided and shallow. Through their massive range of grass-roots activities, such as Sky Ride, Sky ensured top-to-bottom immersion in a rapidly developing sport.

Sky's Pro Cycling created an attitude and passion which transcended the sport and the brand. Sky behaved like they genuinely loved the sport, rather than simply badging it. In Sky's model, the brand's immediate relevance is less important than their shared passion.

Most unusual, is ambition. Where most sponsorship is about borrowed equity, Sky set about nothing short of the transformation of the sport in the UK - and world domination. The first ever British winner of the Tour de France within five years? Surely, a task greater than the infamous Alpe D'Huez itself. It's easy with hindsight to miss this, but the size of the risk taken was significant and the opportunities to fail, many. It's hard to think of any brand, let alone a sports brand, which has dared tackle such a challenge.

Sky's sponsorship of cycling in the UK is as good an example as it is possible to find of a symbiotic relationship between a brand and sport. For once, the majority of the money hasn't simply poured into the pockets of the super-elite few, but has truly nurtured the sport as a whole. Sky's activation of its involvement is comprehensive and crucially, sincere. They appear to be a brand who genuinely love the sport and are fully invested in its success. It's a claim few can make.

In winning the Tour and multiple Olympic medals (ahead of target), coach Dave Brailsford's team tore up the rule book. Similarly, Sky's sponsorship should be seen as a textbook re-invention of how to create a genuine partnership between brand and sport. The commitment and achievements of both our cyclists and their sponsors should be an example to us all.