With the FIFA World Cup, Commonwealth Games and Ryder Cup taking place this year, 2018 is a big year for sport. Kevin Gessay, Managing Director of global entertainment agency PMK•BNC, looks at how brands can work with ambassadors to create an authentic presence in sport.

In 2016, Under Armour stole the Rio Olympics. The brand wasn’t a sponsor of the games, it didn’t benefit from any official Olympic endorsements. But it was deemed one of the winning brands in marketing terms, a result reflected in the press, on the stock market and with a host of industry awards, recognising its effectiveness.

How did they do it? The key was in clever partnerships. With ambassadors including swimmer Michael Phelps and the US women’s gymnastics team, along with a hoard of 250 Under Armour-clad Olympic athletes and a series of supporting experiential activities on the ground at Rio, the brand was absolutely everywhere. It also benefited from the international Olympic Committee relaxing its guidelines to allow ‘generic’ or ‘non-Olympic advertising’ during the Games, so that athletes could tweet and post on social media about non-official sponsors, as long as they didn’t use Olympic properties or references.

With the 2018 FIFA World Cup fast approaching, brands will be looking back at this with interest. A partnership with an athlete not only gives brands a right to join the conversation, it gives them access to their community of passionate sports fans who will be avidly following the on-pitch/field action both through their TV screens and social channels.

Of course, today, authority on sport and social reach doesn’t stop at those competing. Sponsoring an Olympic athlete or international football squad is a pipe dream for most brands, but influencer marketing is a far more accessible option. Influencers can be anyone interested in sport - from players and athletes right down to keen or skilled amateurs with a healthy fan base. To use influencer marketing means working with these people in ways similar to sponsorship, but often with a much lower cost of entry.

And today’s sporting events are more than what’s taking place on the field - they’re entertainment experiences, with a front row to rival fashion weeks. They’re increasingly part of the pop culture conversation, and brands don’t just want to be on the sports pages talking to sports fans - they can diversify their ambassadors by working with big names in attendance to hit the consumer pages, too.

As always, choosing the right ambassador for a brand starts with authenticity. Your partner should align with your brand, their personality and attributes should match your brand values. If you’re a fashion brand, don’t jump into a partnership with an athlete who has never shown any interest in what they’re wearing. Instead, look for a partner who has opinions on clothes, styling, cosmetics - and if they’ve ever shown an organic interest in your brand, even better.

If you’re looking to work with influencers, be thorough with your research; look at their KPIs from past partnerships, look past their follower size and analyse exactly who their audience is; the more sophisticated influencer analytics tools allow you to do this. Set very clear objectives up front - you need to know where your ambassador will be, how often they will be posting, and make sure they’re aware of the legal obligations around sponsored content. If you’re working with multiple ambassadors with different tiers of influence (e.g. celebrities to micro-influencers) make sure your playbook is thorough and clear so that branding is consistent across all content.

However, don’t try and control your ambassador too tightly - you’re working with them because they’re an expert in what they do. They’ve built their career, or their profile, by being the best in their field. Instead, capitalise on their key traits, enhancing what they already bring to the table. For example, if they’re heavily focused on healthy eating, an FMCG brand could work with them to create new ‘match ready’ recipes. If they’re a celebrity attending the games, a cosmetics brand could help them showcase the latest makeup trends - captured in the moment pitch-side, with a ‘how to’ provided later on social media. Make sure they’re well informed, so that what they’re posting is relevant and accurate to your brand, but be prepared to give up some creative control.

There’s never been a better time, with such diverse opportunities, for brands who want to become part of sporting moments. Authentic partnerships can bring brands closer to a new legion of fans, and build a long-term affinity within fast-growing industry.