Interviews

Sport has the power to change the world

A new era of sports marketing will be driven by making change rather than generic statements says Drew Barrand, Head of Commercial and Sales at Laureus.

Nicola Kemp

Editorial Director

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Brands hold much of the power in sport. Which brands are using their power for good? This is the question that sits at the heart of Laureus’ new Sport for Good Index.

“In 20 years of working in marketing, purpose has always been there and sport has a huge role to play in it, but the key shift is how do you change that from being a marketing purpose-led campaign to making real change?”

Drew Barrand, Head of Commercial and Sales at Laureus is explaining the fundamental challenge for progressive brands and marketers; namely, how do you move from the era of raising awareness to an era of accountability. A shift from purpose-led marketing to purposeful business which is rightly top of the business agenda in the wake of a global pandemic that has ushered in the most profound reset moment of our lifetime. 

As a former Marketing Director of the English Football League and a former Associate Director at Pitch, Barrand has a unique lens through which to assess the opportunities and barriers to this new era of sports marketing for good. Speaking as the brand launches its inaugural ‘Sport for Good’ index, his passion for the power of sport to change the world for the better is clear.

Laureus is a global sporting movement of the world’s greatest athletes who are united in the power of sport for good. The group runs the Laureus World Sport Awards, an academy and ambassadors program and the Laureus Sport for Good programme, which gives tangible support and funds development programs for children and young people in disadvantaged communities. 

From purpose-marketing to purpose-led business

Barrand believes the industry is on the cusp of a fundamental shift when it comes to embracing the true power of purpose. As he explains: “Sport is not the solution in itself, but it is the tools by which we make the change. Whether that is making a change in education, in health or gender equality, sport can be the vehicle to achieve that change.”

This was the thinking behind the Laureus Sport for Good Index. “A lot of organisations are being asked what do you stand for, what is your social contribution.” It’s a challenge that he believes a growing number of brands are seeking to tackle through sport.

However, Barrand believes that tackling big societal issues cannot be achieved by generic sponsorship alone. The challenge for the industry, he explains, is the question of how you move from generic to specific. “A brand can't simply attach itself to a sports narrative, the key is to make that narrative credible. 

So what can brands learn from those getting it right that feature in the inaugural index? Top of the agenda is having absolute clarity in what you are doing as a business. He points to the example of Marcus Rashford as a reflection of a new era. 

He explains: “Marcus Rashford was specific in what he was trying to achieve, he had personal experience and a clear view of what was wrong. He is credible, his solution was tangible and this is why he had such a lasting impact.”

The second unifying factor is the fact that successful brands embraced sports their partnership across their business. “Most companies could be doing more internally to bring their sports partnerships to life,” he explains.

“The idea that purpose is just marketing positioning is outdated, it is relevant to each and every department,” he explains. An internal engagement tool that is, perhaps, particularly relevant in the era of the great resignation. 

“The internal engagement aspect is massively important,” agrees Barrand, who believes that employees are a ‘vital audience’ for sports partnerships. “It is important to get them on board if it is to be a credible partnership,” he adds.

Brands can’t just rely on the generic brand statement ‘I believe in gender equality’. They need to be more tangible and focused on impact

Drew Barrand, Head of Commercial and Sales at Laureus

Sports breaking barriers

“Sport breaks down barriers and opens up significant opportunities for companies. Traditionally sports sponsorship have been sold on media value; but the challenge is that it is harder to articulate what the purpose element really means and to take it to the next level you need to understand that.”

“The vast majority of brands need to reach audiences, but they also need it to stand for something,” he explains. Adding that this same shift towards purpose is true for sports properties themselves; properties that will increasingly look towards brands that share their values. 

While the impact of athletes such as Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles in opening up global conversations on mental health is difficult to overestimate. As Barrand explains: “Athletes are increasingly using their platforms to advocate for change, brands need to align not just with the sport but with the athletes’ values. Brands can’t just rely on the generic brand statement ‘I believe in gender equality’. They need to be more tangible and focused on impact.” 

This ethos is shared by Laureus Academy Member and eleven-time Paralympic gold medalist Tanni Grey-Thompson who said: “At Laureus, we believe in the power of sport to inspire and drive social change, and sport holds the power to help people and companies approach what they do in an entirely different way. It is great that brands are doing this by adopting sport’s influence and are helping to change people’s views towards issues such as the climate crisis, as well as the social and economic divide in our communities.”

She continues: “If we are able to persuade people and brands to start thinking and behaving differently towards the impact they have on the world, we can then hope to unite them in the fight against climate change and to address the societal issues faced – particularly by young people – in the modern-day.”

If we are able to persuade people and brands to start thinking and behaving differently towards the impact they have on the world, we can then hope to unite them in the fight against climate change and to address the societal issues faced – particularly by young people – in the modern-day

Laureus Academy Member and eleven-time Paralympic gold medalist Tanni Grey-Thompson

The power of the athlete advocate

If the pandemic is ushering in a global reset moment the opportunity surrounding brands and sports is a clear one: brands can step up to meet athletes in their quest to create change on and off the fields or courts they compete on. Barrand points to the work that Laureus has done with Nike and Naomi Osaka, setting up a players academy to help remove the barriers she faced in her career for the next generation of players in the US and Japan.

“Those kinds of collaborations which really bring together the athletes' vision and deliver real change, really resonate,” adds Barrand. 

But in the age of cancel culture; where there is increased scrutiny over the types of brands aligning with sport, can every brand exist in this purpose-led space? It’s a debate that is particularly loaded by political pressure of HFSS brands, energy drinks and betting brands investing heavily in sports “It is very hard for a big corporate to be whiter than white; but as long as the work they are doing on the ground is having an impact then it’s worth it,” says Barrand. 

Purpose is more than a moral crusade

In the midst of the deluge of headlines and data pointing to ‘the great resignation’ there is clearly a role for more purpose-driven business practices as we emerge from the pandemic. Yet Barrand is clear that sport for good is more than a moral crusade.

He explains: “All of these investments have a business benefit.” Yet he adds that at many companies ‘the link between social contribution and business performance is not as strong as it should be.” 

He believes this is partly structural with many brands sitting in silos; a division between marketing and CSR that demands businesses build more bridges and integrated thinking.

“Brands need to be clear-sighted about what they are trying to achieve and how they will create meaningful change, while also measuring outcomes,” adds Barrand. An approach which will put the power of sport to change the world into action.

The truth is, for marketing commentators delivering a seemingly never-ending line of hot takes on why brands and agencies alike need to stop focusing on purpose and instead ‘sell more stuff’; it's increasingly clear that the future increasingly depends on the ability of the industry to do both. As Laureus Sport for Good Index clearly underlines purpose and profit are far from mutually exclusive pursuits and are instead the industry’s most vital common goal.

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