Kevin Carden -

Retail technology, sports sponsorship and a global marketing opportunity

Sports sponsorship remains a focus area for B2B software companies and retail technology businesses looking to impress the C-suite

The Dell Technologies-sponsored World Golf Championships (WGC) Match Play tournament was on the agenda for the globe’s best golfers in April 2019.

In addition to the headline partner, there was an array of business technology corporate sponsorship on show – including many logos from B2B companies targeting the retail market. That is set to persist for the remainder of the PGA and European Tour calendars.

Workday – a cloud ERP system for finance, HR and planning, which is used by the likes of Amazon, Avon and Levi’s – was emblazoned on WGC event runner-up Matt Kuchar’s sweatshirt during the course of the week. The company sponsors several of the world’s top golfers, including five-time major winner Phil Mickelson.

Companies known for their retail technology are increasingly promoting their names in the golfing world – notably JDA Software through its recently agreed partnership with Spanish Ryder Cup player and rising star Jon Rahm.

Golf’s continued ability to attract a C-suite audience seems to be at the heart of retail technology companies’ strategy to put their money into the sport and its leading lights.

Kevin Iaquinto, executive vice-president and chief marketing officer for JDA, says a myriad of C-suite decision makers are involved in the large-scale digital transformation projects currently taking place in business. He says golf is an ideal space in which to capture the attention of many of them.

“For JDA, which is well known in supply chain and retail, we’re trying to reach the broader C-suite and raise awareness,” he says. “As we looked across the various advertising and sponsorship channels, and which ones reached the C-suite most effectively, golf is at the top of the list.”

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The deal with Rahm sees JDA’s logo appear on the golfer’s clothing every time he plays on tour. Through its corporate hospitality endeavours, the tech company is also looking at inviting customers and prospects to play a round of golf with Rahm and involving him at executive conferences on both sides of the Atlantic.

Working with Rahm – who lives near JDA’s headquarters in Arizona and plays on both the US PGA Tour and the European Tour – enables JDA to create a “whole integrated marketing campaign” based on his global appeal, says Iaquinto.

A range of Rahm-influenced digital marketing and social media activity aimed at raising brand awareness and interest in the B2B space is currently under development. “It helps us expand the reach beyond the tournaments themselves,” he says.

The integrated element of the sportsperson-B2B company partnership is the key way sponsorships have evolved in recent years. According to Mostyn Goodwin, partner and head of media sector at OC&C Strategy Consultants, the advent of digital communications has supported a shift in the model of these deals.

“Sponsorship has broadened from ‘name my sweatshirt or stadium’ to ‘activation’, which is the use of that sponsorship in all kinds of communication,” he says.

“From email, Twitter and social media to using personalities as brand ambassadors at industry events, the proliferation of media channels means you can activate your sponsorship in far more creative ways, and really ram your point home with customers in a way you historically couldn’t.”

Market research

As with all marketing, there is an element of guess work relating to what will resonate with existing and potential business customers, but Goodwin says it can be quantified.

“A sponsorship campaign would have a business objective – you can track social media mentions, awareness from surveys, web traffic, and success rate on pitches before and after,” he says.

“Any campaign linked to an objective is monitorable, not always to the pound and penny, but you can understand it through a whole series of marketing econometric analyses as long as you can link it to a business outcome.”

Goodwin says the olden days of “slap my sponsorship on something” or choosing a sport to partner with just because the executive team or owner of the business like it are less prevalent now.

Instead, sponsorship is activated in the way he describes above or shaped into official partnerships. These include “the official timekeeper of Formula One”, or, to quote a more retail-relevant example, IBM’s status as the official supplier of information technology for the Wimbledon tennis championships.

A sporting showcase

European software titan SAP has positioned itself very much in the role of technology partner when it comes to sports sponsorship. It even views its work with the German football association, Bayern Munich and Manchester City as something akin to a loss leader supporting wider business goals.

These partnerships are all part of SAP’s marketing team’s plan to generate eye-catching user cases of its technology that can be used in integrated campaigns. It also marks a sharp shift in tactics for the business in the past five years, as it looks for more compelling ways to get its message across to its target clients.

Lars Lamadé, head of SAP sponsorships in Europe and Asia, says SAP first started sports sponsorship around 20 years ago, but it was mainly focused on hospitality and interacting with customers outside a standard meeting room.

“The first major one was Formula One,” he says. “I initiated it, and we were looking for something we could do all over the world.”

Since SAP’s technology has developed and following the invention of Hana, its marquee analytics platform, the strategy has changed to focus on “some really cool showcases”, says Lamadé.

Monitoring performance

In the example of Manchester City, SAP’s analytics packages are used to monitor player performance and movement on the pitch and in the gym, creating data the club’s management can use when forming training or matchday strategy.

“When we can analyse how the players are moving around on the football pitch, do we then sell to a lot of football clubs? Yes,” says Lamadé. “But will it be core? No.”

“But for a retailer like Walmart, if it has the same question and wants to analyse customers walking through stores, where they stop and where the products should be, these customers see the tech in sport and consider how they can use it in their shops.”

Sports is one of 25 industries SAP sells software to, and its global appeal resonates with business decision makers. SAP is happy to supply its technology to the sporting world in the hope it makes other bigger business verticals – such as retail and manufacturing – sit up and take notice.

Lamadé says he wants to secure a partnership in cricket or rugby to help create an appealing case study for the Asian business market, but he admits SAP is reducing sports sponsorship spend. The team will wind down initiatives before starting new ones, as part of an executive-led decision to slow investment after several years of significant outlay.

Competition heats up

OC&C research, published in 2018, supports this trend. It showed global sports sponsorship grew by circa 6% per year between 2011 and 2015, but the annual rise has dropped to around 4% in recent years.

“There are more opportunities to sponsor, and more competition – and there’s probably some more rational decision-making in marketing teams,” says Goodwin from OC&C Strategy Consultants, who is confident official technology partnerships hold significant influence on retail technology departments and IT teams.

“These companies are serious not just on the sponsorship side but also about providing services to these forward-thinking, innovative organisations.”

There remains a plethora of routes to market for B2B technology companies using sports sponsorship as part of their marketing armoury.

British Summer Time has arrived, and so too the unofficial three-month countdown to the start of Wimbledon. In 2018, IBM used its partnership with the All England Lawn Tennis Club to push its artificial intelligence prowess, using its Watson machine learning capabilities to create artwork for the event marketing and helping media channels compile their sporting highlights by reducing the manual work required.

There will be more of this type of activity around the 2019 event, while other big retail technology players continue to link up with sports occasions and sportspeople.

Data for teams and fans

Oracle says the new global championship featuring the world’s fastest race boats, SailGP, is supported by its cloud product offering data to teams and fans alike.

“The information derived from 1,200 sensors placed on the athletes and supercharged F50 catamarans, plus onboard cameras and microphones, brings viewers closer to the action, helps teams analyse their performance and gives remote umpires the details they need to make calls with confidence,” says a company spokesperson.

This sits alongside its ongoing professional tennis tour partnerships – and its January 2019 signing, a 20-year naming rights partnership for San Francisco Giants baseball team’s Oracle Park stadium. Venue sponsorship is also part of SAP’s strategy, with its name attached to the stadium of San Jose Sharks, an ice hockey team majority-owned by the technology company’s co-founder Hasso Platner.

Marcel Bolin, chief technology officer of flooring retailer Carpetright, says sponsorship deals have some impact in his tech investment decisions, but describes it as a “tenuous link” around brand recognition.

“It creates curiosity and, depending on what I’m looking for in the market, it may prompt some brand awareness,” he says. “But I wouldn’t be making a final decision based on what a company is doing in sports sponsorship or what sport they are sponsoring.”

Bolin says data companies operating in Formula One benefit from raised profiles – and he admits he might talk to IBM about store footfall tracking based on its success deploying Hawkeye on the tennis court – but he knows his ultimate retail technology investment decision will be made on the quality and suitability of the product on offer.

Only the technology companies themselves, and their agencies, will know if their sponsorship endeavours are worth it. The fact they keep entering into them suggests they are seeing the benefits.

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