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From Goodyear blimps to the Pepsi porch at New York Mets’ Citi Field to the Nike swoosh emblazoned on the bodies of top athletes across the world, sports marketing has long been the purview of consumer brands. Yet more and more it appears business-to-business marketers are joining the competition for sports fans’ hearts and wallets. Whether its providers of medical equipment, IT services or insurance for small business, new B2B players are suiting up and taking the field. As part of The Drum’s Sports Marketing Deep Dive, we find out why.

Athletes have trained their entire lives just for the chance to set foot on an Olympic field. Now with the Games less than three weeks away, the last thing they want to do is contract Covid. That’s why medical technology manufacturer BD and USA Olympic Track and Field (UASTF) decided to team up for a partnership and new documentary. ‘BD on location’ is a new series from a business-to-business (B2B) company not known for sports marketing.

BD joins an increasing amount of B2B companies who are competing more like consumer brands in the sports arena to better connect with their customers. The Olympics, for example, boasts the likes of Intel, Dow Chemical, Atos, General Electric and Allianz – all of which have major sponsorships and major B2B divisions.

The BD Veritor Plus System, which offers rapid results for Covid, flu and other viruses, is largely targeted at schools, hospitals, urgent care centers and hospitals. However, “there has been a shift in what our customers expect and need,” says BD chief marketer Tony Ezell. “Covid-19 brought about a change that led to BD’s marketing communications strategy moving more into the consumer space, as what we do has become more front and center due to the public health crisis. It’s new for BD and new for the industry, but we know that we need to engage more directly with consumers and businesses alike.“

Whether it’s medical equipment or insurance for small businesses, B2B companies leverage sports to tell their often complex stories in a more simplified, relatable way. Sentry Insurance, for example, signed its first major sports sponsorship in its 115-year history when it linked up with the Professional Golf Association. The five-year deal puts the brand in front of its target audience when they are more likely to be responsive to brand messaging.

“It’s not just the interest in golf that we are tapping into. It’s the role that golf plays in our audience’s lives that we’re tapping into as well,” says Amanda Schuneman, brand strategy director, Gyro – the agency responsible for Sentry’s ‘Right by you‘ ad campaign. “After all, golf is an arena where watchers and players can merge their professional and personal lives. They can discuss business on the course. And they can connect more directly with others who watch and play golf as well. So, for Sentry, which has been right by its customers for more than 115 years, golf is a natural extension for the brand. Our sponsorships with the PGA Tour and USGA not only familiarize viewers with the Sentry brand, but they also allow us to spend quality time with our customers and business partners to build and strengthen relationships.”

More human, more exciting, more winning

Tata Consultancy Services, a global leader in IT services, consulting and business solutions, regularly leans into sports to humanize its brand. “By aligning with sports sponsorships, we can build on people’s passion for sports while also leveraging their power as a global unifier,” says Michelle Taylor, Tata’s head of global sports and sponsorships. “It is via these platforms that we can also showcase our company’s game-changing technology, which ultimately acts as a catalyst to strengthen our brand and business relationships. The best way to optimize these sponsorships is to ensure the sport or sports you choose are an authentic fit for your company and are intrinsically part of who you are and what you believe in. At TCS we will continue to make these investments because we believe sport can make a meaningful impact in the lives of individuals and our communities.” 

And then there’s the simple fact that sports are exciting and, often, B2B brands just aren’t. “We encourage our B2B clients to look at sports partnerships as a platform to simplify complex customer capabilities through easy-to-understand sports analogies, highlight shared values between the brand and sports partner – such as a commitment to excellence – and connect with key business decision-makers on an emotional level rarely seen in other parts of the marketing mix,” says Brad Silver, head of the Ogilvy Sports Network.

For BD, the USATF is proof positive of the effectiveness of its product and the benefit to the end-user and humanity as a whole. Ezell says: “What better way to showcase how Covid has challenged everyone from business leaders to professional athletes than to display how we’ve partnered with organizations to navigate the return to work – or return to the track.”

Check out The Drum’s Sports Marketing hub for more on how the marketing industry can score long-term success through association with sport. And don’t forget you can sign up for The Drum’s daily US newsletter here.