How did the Premier League, its clubs and sponsors respond to the coronavirus pandemic from a business perspective – through marketing, branding and sponsorship activations? (Part 2)

A holy trinity has been re-established for many in football – club; fans; city. Community outreach programs were a large part of the coronavirus response in football. Such projects create a generally good feeling around the place, but they won’t keep football’s most powerful league in business. Although it’s easy to think locally, of the people surrounding the club, the Premier League now has a global audience, as do its constituent clubs, and therefore must make considerations as to how their brand functions as part of a global sporting marketplace.

Like every other business, the clubs and Premier League have suffered as a part of the pandemic. The reopening of the league is an opportunity for brands to regain exposure. However, they are sponsoring in a new landscape – one that imposed each company with their own struggles outside of the footballing world. For the while that there were no games, and then after the introduction of closed-door matches, brands and clubs had an obvious place to turn for exposure. Screens.

Both digital content and the prospect of televised matches became the immediate focus, in that order, of how this Darwinian period of transition could reshape business, football, and the Premier League’s hierarchy. Some would adapt, others could die.

How fans at home engage is completely new and largely unpredictable. For clubs and brands, it’s the Wild West – a new marketing frontier. The battle for your attention was on. The arena was no longer the vast stadia of the league’s elite sides, but the infinite possibilities of digital content on social media platforms.

Like all good advertising – concept is king. A good idea will prosper in any medium, under any circumstances. Perfectly illustrating this is the Cadbury ‘Donate Your Words’ campaign, whereby conversations are held with players and elderly football fans. Although developed before the pandemic, it only proves the old marketing maxim to be true, as the campaign gained newfound poignancy in light of the drastic social changes.

Knowing the demographic to be the most at risk, not only from the virus, but from the exclusionary nature of social distancing and self-isolation, the advert seemed tailored to the coronavirus landscape. Cadbury, the official snack sponsor of the Premier League, had begun working on their own commercial partnership with Manchester United and Age UK at the beginning of 2020 in an effort to drive a conversation towards the loneliness experienced by many elderly people around the UK.

United first exchanged their young mascots for elderly ones in a walk-out, as an awareness initiative, which led to the confectionary company looking at other ways to start a conversation. In the UK, there are few things that act as a more reliable conversation starter than football. Quick clicks and shares dominate much of marketing’s strategy in our digital era, but with this campaign, Cadbury tried to do something that ran a bit deeper. Little did they know they were laying the groundwork for the incoming ‘new normal’.

As the virus took hold, isolation became the standard for every house in the UK. Cadbury’s example not only perfectly illustrates a creative solution (albeit one created pre-coronavirus), but perfectly highlights the problems for brands and footballing organisations – the campaign’s success largely hangs on the fact that it was part brand activation, part social outreach effort.

Other brands, with even more obscure links to football, were able to flex their creative muscles in an environment where the old rule book was quickly burned to a crisp. Take Manchester United’s mattress and pillow sponsor Mlily. It wasn’t just the fans that were homebound, United’s players were in the same boat. Mlily faced the same creative challenges as Cadbury – only they didn’t have a pre-Corona concept that would be sufficient.

Being a period of downtime for athletes, Mlily utilised this to promote how their products – and the research and people that go into making them – can improve the quality of rest and in turn, life, for its users. The mattress manufacturer explored their partnership with United by chatting with coaching staff to delve into the science of sleep and how it can improve athletic performance.

For many, although niche, it provided some interesting content to be devoured at home during lockdown – even giving many fans food for thought as to their own lifestyle habits. This is but one example of  a brand using the period to integrate themselves into fans’ lives beyond simply a name on the hoardings at the side of the pitch. There are many more notable efforts from club to club. Keeping fans, sponsors and players engaged in these various commitments can be difficult, particularly given the sensitive nature of the everyday economy during the lockdown period. Most football players live in considerable dwellings, particularly compared to the average UK household. If players are posting videos from their home, as per restrictions, not doing so in front of, say, a swimming pool or indoor cinema, is something that must be kept in mind. This was advertising done in a whole new way, where only the sharpest and most versatile thrive.