Since the days when fliers, posters, and billboards ruled the marketing world, brands have searched high and low for the newest, smartest, and easiest ways to connect consumers with their products. And for several years, sports marketing has provided quick-service concepts the ability to reach a widespread audience while investing in something consumers are passionate about.
Today, with the industry increasingly turning to overseas expansion opportunities, quick serves are expanding that strategy to more international sports platforms. Companies of all shapes and sizes are realizing that global athletes, teams, leagues, and sporting events can provide a lasting association with overseas fans’ favorite pastimes. The move is also helping some companies earn exposure with a sizable chunk of the global population. For example, nearly one billion people tuned in to the 2010 FIFA World Cup final, according to FIFA, while the Olympics Committee estimates that three billion viewers will watch next month’s Winter Olympics.
As an Olympic sponsor since 1976 and World Cup sponsor since 1994, McDonald’s has used its partnerships with worldwide sports properties and events to extend the brand to every corner of the globe. McDonald’s, which has more than 34,000 stores in nearly 120 markets, is the most accessible quick-service brand in the game, with consumer awareness in nearly every country around the world, says Michael Schaefer, head of consumer foodservice for market
intelligence firm Euromonitor International. Because sports—especially events like the Olympics or World Cup—also have an accessibility image, the properties combine to create powerhouse partnerships, he says.
“[Sports are] something that everyone can be a part of, which is why we see McDonald’s spending so much money on these kinds of events,” Schaefer says. “At this point, the way you grow if you’re McDonald’s is you have to be everywhere, you have to appeal to everyone.”
McDonald’s used its World Cup affiliation over the years to not only create promotions, contests, and in-store activations that attract consumers to the brand, but also to connect emotionally with fans of all ages. One hallmark initiative, the Player Escort Program, gives more than 1,400 children across the world the chance to walk hand-in-hand with their favorite soccer player onto the field at the beginning of each World Cup match.
For the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, the brand also gave away trips for two to the semifinal and final matches and launched a Fantasy Football online game, in which more than one million fans participated. To build buzz for the 2014 World Cup, which will be held in Brazil in June and July, McDonald’s debuted an online sweepstakes last May, capitalizing on Hispanic soccer lovers’ passion for the sport and the upcoming event. Using a bilingual website, social media, and traditional television advertising, the brand invited fans to compete for three VIP trips to this year’s tournament.
All of the hard work and sponsorship dollars toward the World Cup seem to be paying off for McDonald’s. According to a study by Survey Sampling International, which compared sponsorship awareness before and after the 2010 World Cup, McDonald’s saw notable gains in brand awareness, driven largely by men ages 30–39.
But the granddaddy of international sporting events, the Olympics, proves even more lucrative for the Golden Arches. After becoming the official sponsor of the Olympics nearly four decades ago—and the official restaurant of the games in 1996—McDonald’s used the partnership to gain a foothold with billions of consumers. The company activates the Olympics partnership in several ways. It created the world’s largest McDonald’s unit, a two-level, nearly 30,000-square-foot restaurant, for the London 2012 Olympics, and that year also launched its “Champions of Play” initiative, which encourages a healthier lifestyle for kids and sponsored trips to the summer games for hundreds of children around the world. In 2000, it launched its Olympic Champion Crew program, in which the brand’s top employees around the world compete for an all-expenses-paid trip to the Olympics to serve guests and athletes at Olympic units.
Though McDonald’s has been able to use these international events to cement its top-dog status in the world of quick service, “it’s a limited number of brands that can play in that field and be the official sponsor,” Schaefer says.
Since only the largest brands in existence can afford to cough up more than $20 million to sponsor global events like the World Cup, others in the quick-service sector have managed to unearth more feasible ways to reach consumers through international sports sponsorships at the national and local level. Many of these companies have even found that their partnerships have effectively associated with a particular sport, league, or team, Schaefer says.
“If you can become the pizza company people think of when they’re watching a football game, when you can build that kind of association with the sport, that’s what everyone is going for,” he says.
The simple act of fans coming together to celebrate an emotional connection to a sport or team gives brands something powerful to tap into, says Melissa Richards-Person, vice president of national partnerships and field marketing for Papa John’s, a brand that’s formed a laundry list of sports sponsorships in markets around the world.
“We can connect with folks at a time when they are often interested in buying pizza or eating pizza in a way that’s relevant to them,” adds Tim Scott, vice president of international marketing at the pizza brand. “And if we’re associated with the team that they like or a sport that they like, then that just makes them that much more inclined to like us.”
Sandwich chain Quiznos, which participates in a number of sports sponsorships in the U.S., also partners with sports properties in Latin America and Canada. While one master franchisee in Costa Rica uses racecar driving as an opportunity to promote the brand within the market, Quiznos’ largest international sports partnership is the one it holds with NFL Canada. Football is one of the most-watched sports in Canada, second only to hockey, providing Quiznos with an affordable, yet powerful, brand association, says George Jeffrey, COO of Quiznos Canada.
“There’s a halo effect for the brand,” he says. “The brand is seen as doing good and seen as participating in large events, and it’s cool. It’s cool to be a part of that brand and a consumer of that brand because that brand does really neat things.”
Because every company wants to guarantee its international sports sponsorships are an effective way to connect with consumers and spread brand awareness, there are some ground rules for creating the most successful strategy possible, experts say. Chiefly, it’s often best for brands to approach the sports marketing opportunity abroad as they would approach it at home—or as they would approach any marketing initiative in general.
“It’s a lot of basic marketing 101: Know your target audience, know your brand, know your brand’s strengths, and ensure that they’re matching up with the property you’re partnering with,” Richards-Person says.
Brands should also take a look at how each sports league or team is perceived in various markets, as well as what consumers the sponsorship might appeal to, Schaefer says. “You have to do your homework,” he says. “You have to be very careful of what you’re getting yourself associated with.”
Using creative forms of activation that go beyond just selling food at an event or using a property’s logo for in-store signage and promotions also plays a role in effectively engaging consumers.
In one NFL Canada program, Quiznos used the NFL’s marks in association with an extended contest that offered fans the chance to win prizes like tickets to the Super Bowl and Pro Bowl, trips to regular-season games, discounts at NFLShop.com, and free food. Not only did the contest build buzz around the brand and its sports partnership, but the inclusion of bounce-back coupons also drove repeat visits to Quiznos’ Canadian units, Jeffrey says.