Brands are spending boatloads of money on sponsoring athletes, but even more on advertising. I feel that using these sponsored athletes to represent the brand in a genuine way by telling visual stories about them can be the best form of advertising. This is my plea for more visual storytelling with athletes.
Quality content is key
The American social media entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk is a huge believer in every firm that wants to do marketing having to first become a media production company. Consumers at this point in time have no trouble at all seeing through obvious marketing ploys and want to be seduced by strong stories and quality content created with sincere intentions. One of his theories is called Jab Jab Jab Right Hook, derived from boxing: brands need to first seduce their followers on social media with quality content multiple times before they can make the ask and pitch their product, make the sale.
Ever since I dedicated to photographing athletes, I’ve seen a number of marketing campaigns where Vaynerchuk’s principle was obeyed, and some where it absolutely wasn’t. I think it’s a huge waste for brands to bring their sponsored athletes in to endorse the brand in a very obvious way, instead of using these athletes in a way that brings out their qualities: by allowing them to show their passion and dedication. Endorsements where the brand’s product is very much on display do not strike me as particularly charming and will not stir a feeling with viewers. No emotional connection with the brand is made.
Case study: Red Bull
Consider two brands that do know how to nail this: Red Bull and Under Armour. The Austrian energy drink manufacturer is admittedly quite in your face and commercial, but these guys understand one thing very well: dropping shitloads of awesome, high quality and unique content online is a definite win. Consumers are all too happy to tolerate seeing the logo with the bulls, in fact they consider it a guarantee that insane action will play on their screens soon.
The clip embedded below is a great example. The brand’s product doesn’t enter the frame until the very last scene, and its late cameo can be considered funny even. Other than that all we see is epic action the way we want it. Content and story trump the actual product. Videos like this one are very shareable and easily go viral, with over 25 million people having viewed the video on Youtube. This is a very sustainable way of building a brand identity. Red Bull supports athletes that are doing amazing stunts, and is therefore a cool brand. Instead of shining the spotlight on the brand’s product, the athletes are placed on a pedestal.
Case study: Under Armour
The major American sports brand Under Armour is also excellent at telling visual stories. By far the most inspiring and insanely well produced video I’ve seen in a long time was this ode to Michael Phelps.
Just like we saw in the Red Bull video, the brand’s product is only visible in a subtle way. Phelps wears Under Armour clothing and at the end of the video the brand’s logo is displayed. That’s it. Other than that, this video should rather be called a commercial for Michael Phelps than for the brand. Which is exactly what makes telling visual stories such a powerful marketing tool: viewers sympathise with Phelps’ hard work and can almost feel his pain and effort. If Under Armour supports this athlete and is willing to produce an ode for him in the form of a video, then this brand must share this athlete’s dedication and love of sports. Consider Phelps’ reaction after seeing this video for the first time:
Phelps comments: “That commercial shows a lot of amazing things about me that probably the world has never seen. (…) The world is going to see the real Michael Phelps.”
When sponsors succeed in telling genuine visual stories about their athletes, it’s worth its weight in gold. Viewers will not feel like they’re being pitched or having a product sold to them. Sponsors transform into media production companies that just so happen to be selling a product as well. In addition, photos and videos are attractive content on social media, consumers can experience a wow moment instantly. A well told story or unique photo about an athlete will probably earn far more likes, comments and shares than content that focuses on the brand and their product. Obviously, due to the algorithms to measure engagement used by the likes of Facebook and Instagram, that content and thus the brand’s name then reaches far more viewers. In addition to social media, this content naturally can be used on the brand’s native website, in print and offered to traditional media. Marketing content can then even become conventional news stories.
Now I understand not every brand will have at its disposal the enormous budgets that Red Bull and Under Armour do. However this principle of telling visual stories can be applied at a smaller scale. We all know the stories about the winners and their successes, since they garner plenty of attention in news media. Sports fans are just longing for the stories about hard work, the sweat and what goes on behind the scenes. For instance, think about filming or photographing athletes training, travelling and preparing for competitions. The emotions before and after a match are great to capture, and these include the negative emotions and setbacks. Define the athlete’s character and stir a feeling in people.
In addition, people love the story of the underdog. Recent examples from football are Leicester City snatching the Premier League title and Iceland doing insanely well at the European Championship. Underdogs starting the assault on the status quo can always count on the viewer’s sympathy, Under Armour has even based its marketing strategy on the underdog athlete.
The point I’m trying to make here is that the essential principle in using visual stories in sports is shining the spotlight on the athlete, instead of directing attention to their sponsor. Viewers love unique images, well told stories and awesome content. A brand that places the athlete on a pedestal and doesn’t just use them to promote their own product in a blatant manner will quickly win consumers’ sympathy.
This article is a translation of a recent feature I wrote for Sportnext and has been adapted for this post.