Sports properties are exploring the ‘lifestyle brand’ model to build deeper relationships and diversify revenues. Where does sustainability fit with this vision?
Just behind Manchester United and ahead of Ferrari, Formula 1, WWE, FC Bayern Munich, Wimbledon, and the Chicago Bulls, among others.
That’s where you’ll find League of Legends esports on this year’s 50 Most Marketable Properties, put together by SportsPro and SponsorPulse. Eleventh place to be exact, 24 ahead of Call of Duty World League, the other esports property on the list.
According to market research firm Newzoo, prominent esports organisations will look to build on their increasing popularity and rocketing brand value by actually moving away from the business models that served traditional sports so well for decades (events, TV rights and traditional sponsorship), and towards “lifestyle brand positioning” and “content creator strategies”.
Many traditional sports properties find themselves at a crossroad when it comes to incorporating esports and diversifying their business model in general, as illustrated by the latest PwC Sports Survey. While esports was referenced by the report as a “key area of engagement strategy” for sports organisations, it also showcased the pitfalls of extending beyond core capabilities and “losing focus”.
But beyond esports, the survey alludes to the need for sports across the board to diversify revenue generation methods – and even totally disrupt their own business model – particularly as the spectre of Covid hangs over the industry, with wholesale disruptions just another wave away.
There are ambitions in some quarters to become “publishing, entertainment or even technology companies”. PwC suggests that rather than following the crowd, rights holders should “focus on gaining a clear vision of their unique, differentiating capabilities”.
A number appear to be following this advice – and the route of esports companies – and transforming themselves into lifestyle brands.
Perennial Ligue 1 champions (last season notwithstanding) Paris Saint-Germain have, in recent years, become sport’s major lifestyle brand, immersing its image in the globally-renowned characteristics of its home city – style, fashion, attitude.
Its collaborations have been eye-catching; music, culture, fashion have all been explored through partnerships with designer Christelle Kocher, artist Olivier Masmonteil, DJ Snake, and the Air Jordan franchise.
Combined with its on-field success and acquisition of star players, PSG has become one of the most popular and fascinating sports brands in the world. Even Harvard Business School wrote a 30-page report on its brand transformation.
While it’s fair to caveat that the club’s financial backing has been astronomical since being bought by Qatar Sports Investments, PSG’s lifestyle brand strategy has paid dividends thus far.
And why is that? Well, lifestyle brands – when positioned successfully – give consumers access to the life they desire. They’re not so much built around a product or service; they’re built on the visions they project to their target audience – that they can become a better version of themselves if they align with the brand.
Sport, with all its intangibles, is probably among the best-placed industries to incubate lifestyle brands. But, as per the PwC Sports Survey 2021, organisations in the industry have to get clarity on their priorities before going down this path.
Different audiences (and individuals) will aspire to different lives. A good lifestyle brand determines the lifestyle it wants to sell – based on the desires of its target audience – and creates a compelling brand story and content to bring it to life.
Those drawn to PSG’s brand story likely want to be perceived as cool, contemporary and stylish. People who buy Moleskine journals are, in all likelihood, projecting an image of professionalism, order and self-improvement.
Increasingly, vast swathes of the population want to improve their ecological footprint and are looking for brands that will help them in this endeavour. Sports fans, as a significant proportion of society, are within this group. Indeed, sports leaders participating in PwC’s Sports Survey 2021 acknowledged that an organisational move towards sustainability has been prompted by the need to engender trust in fans.
Patagonia is a lifestyle brand in the fashion industry. People sporting Patagonia logos on their clothing are, generally, making a statement about their beliefs and behaviours. In sport, there’s a reason that fourth-tier English football club Forest Green Rovers has fanclubs all over the world and gets disproportionate media coverage compared with other clubs of its size.
When it comes to human behaviour, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (below) is often used to showcase the different states of humans, and to explain how we interact with different brands and products. While the very basic needs around food, water, warmth and rest need to be satisfied before we can consider anything else, humans living in comfortable conditions search for things that provide them with ‘self-actualisation’ – helping them achieve their full potential.
That’s where lifestyle brands come into play – and why they are so valuable. They create an emotional attachment. And while many people are motivated to realise their full potential through the prism of individual achievements, a growing section of the population want to harness their potential to do societal and environmental good. Brands who help them achieve this will grow.
In principle, it’s a good idea for sports organisations to position themselves as lifestyle brands as a means of building deeper relationships with the public and diversifying their business model. But those doing so without considering the public concern around issues like climate change are scoring an own goal.
Earlier this month, the Williams F1 unveiled a sustainability strategy focusing on five pillars – climate action, biodiversity stewardship, sustainable innovation, access-for-all, and purpose-driven leadership – with a 2030 climate-positive target as its overarching goal.
During Leaders Week London, at the start of October, the team’s chief marketing officer, Tim Hunt, said that part of the motivation for doing so is to reimage Williams as a lifestyle brand and “engage an audience who will have an affinity with Williams because of our sustainability strategy, not because of how many tenths-of-a-second faster our car is next year.”
“We’re in the process of redefining and relaunching the Williams brand, and the vision of that brand is ‘Williams Beyond Racing’ – deliberately to enable us to go beyond the core segments and talk to people about different things, so it’s still in the Williams ecosystem,” Hunt added.
F1 teams such as Ferrari and Aston Martin are, in some ways, the ultimate sporting lifestyle brands. They have gravitas and they’re distinctive. Williams’ strategy to incorporate sustainability as a means to gain competitive advantage over its rivals as far as engagement and brand values are concerned demonstrates the direction of travel in terms of public sentiment towards environmental issues.
In the US, Oakland Roots Sports Club is building a lifestyle brand around a second-tier soccer team through community engagement, impeccably-thought-out visual branding, and, most recently, climate justice.
Ahead of establishing the team, the co-founders became “anthropologists” for two years to find out what the local community would need from a football club to become emotionally invested in it – including its name, branding and purpose.
“We asked the question: ‘how do we challenge the assumption of what game day is? How do we challenge what the assumption of merchandise is, and every other vertical of what every other club in America puts out? And how do we flip the script?’” co-founder Edreece Arghandiwal told The Sustainability Report in an interview last year.
The answer was to focus on what people in Oakland (the second most racially-diverse city in the US) generally care about – social justice, climate action, community, culture, music. And, in the wake of major franchises upping sticks and leaving (the Raiders, the Golden State Warriors), pledging to “put Oakland first”, no matter what.
In September, World Surf League showcased an initial line of sustainable products designed for the surfing community in partnership with IKEA. The KÅSEBERGA collection includes a balance board, beach bag, and glassware, and will be available from spring 2022.
Part of the rationale for the link-up was for the Swedish furniture brand to explore the lives of surfers – often on the move, and living in confined spaces – and producing items made from recycled and sustainable materials to fit that lifestyle.
“We thought it would be interesting as we know that many people all over the world live in very small spaces,” James Futcher. IKEA’s creative leader, told The Sustainability Report in 2019 when the partnership was revealed.
“With this collaboration we can learn from sportspeople. The question is, how can we learn from them to make things relevant for everybody living in small spaces? Within the surfer community there is a very high demand for things that are very practical and easy to take care of, particularly around water and sand.”
It’s because of partnerships like this that World Surf League stands out as a major sporting lifestyle brand. While the league is helped out by the fact that surfing, generally, is perceived as a way of life more than a sport, its focus on the things its target audience cares about makes World Surf League indispensable for many associated with it.
The WSL Pure arm of the competition has outlined three sustainability commitments: balancing out the carbon emissions generated through travel by investing in marine safeguarding projects, eliminating single-use plastics from events, and cleaning up beaches with partners following events – three conservation initiatives intrinsic to the lives of surfers and people who have a connection to the water.
Sport is already an attractive endeavour to be associated with. That’s why fans are so tribal about their loyalties and keep coming back for more. But to deepen those relationships and reach people on the fringes, sports organisations need to paint a vivid picture of how that association can improve lives and make them part of something bigger.
As climate change continues to alter the everyday lives of people, successful lifestyle brands – in and out of sport – will make sustainability a main pillar.
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