Future Watch: Under the Radar – Can Brands Woo Consumers by Keeping a Low Profile?

An Argentine bank has created a significant buzz in its domestic market by sponsoring a football team but opting to keep its brand off their shirt, giving it “back to its true owners.” In an increasingly cluttered marketing landscape, could such a strategy gain wider traction?

Future directions

  • The old way;
  • The new way;
  • “We have to be smarter”;
  • A subtler approach could pay big dividends for some brands;
  • For some, the old way is still the best.

New business openings

The main commercial opportunities arising from this trend include:

  • Differentiating a brand from its rivals;
  • Building real rapport with sports fans through sponsorship;
  • Products where marketing activities tend to be heavily regulated, such as alcoholic drinks and tobacco.

The new context

Advertising and marketing is all about awareness. It aims to create a sense of recognition and familiarity (both conscious and unconscious) in the minds of consumers. But how is this best achieved? Traditionally, this has been rather straightforward- buying up media real estate and bombarding consumers with logos and messages.

However, in an environment where a growing number of consumers are becoming increasingly jaded and cynical about branding, more attentive to the opinions of fellow consumers expressed via “word of mouse” rather than ads, and can in any event screen out many messages (though the use of TV recorders like TiVo in the USA and Sky+ in the UK), the effectiveness of this strategy may be on the wane.

As a result, innovative brands are seeking ways to refresh their marketing efforts, with some opting for the counterintuitive strategy of actually making their brands less visible, gambling that this will win the affection of consumers and help them build brand equity in the long run.

The old way

Brand sponsorship of sports teams is nothing new, particularly in football. Even Spanish giants Barcelona have now succumbed: Having previously disdained such sponsorship as something that would sully the club’s image as the embodiment of the spirit of the city of Barcelona and the region of Catalonia as a whole (although it has for several years sported a UNICEF logo on its shirt as a charitable gesture), a price tag was finally put on the purity of its ethics and aesthetics by the Qatar Foundation, with which it signed a five-year sponsorship deal worth a world-record €150 million (US$220 million) in December 2010.

Undoubtedly, by getting their logo on the jersey of a high-profile team that is regularly featured on TV and in newspaper and magazine photographs, a brand’s visibility can be greatly enhanced. However, such deals can also provoke a negative reaction. Reacting to the Qatar Foundation deal, former Barcelona player and manager Johan Cruyff commented “We are a unique club… We have sold this uniqueness… By selling the shirt, it shows me that we are not being creative and that we have become vulgar.” Others were more cynical: UK-based journalist Paolo Bandini wrote “With time, many protests will fade and Barcelona will be left with a tidy little earner. Because when it comes down to it, they are more than just a club. They are a business.”

The new way

Argentina’s Banco Hipotecario took a radically different approach when it sponsored one of the best-known teams in Argentine football, Racing Club of Buenos Aires, during 2009. Under the guidance of Buenos Aires-based advertising agency Madre, it broke the sponsorship mould by not including the bank’s logo on the players’ jerseys.

Rather than being just another garish logo on a sports shirt, the bank instead sponsored pristine jerseys, or as the agency cleverly put it, gave “the shirt back to its true owners: the supporters and the players.” The taglines of Racing, “The owner of its shirt,” and that of Banco Hipotecario, “Creator of owners,” even had a pleasing symmetry to them, reinforcing the bank’s branding in the minds of consumers.

The move was a huge hit with Racing fans. Like many sports fans around the world, they feel that their team’s jersey is “sullied” by carrying the logos of sponsors, and they reacted very positively. Within weeks, Racing Club fans had set up three different Facebook fan pages for the bank, and the initiative has received widespread media coverage on radio, TV and in the press. Fans were also allowed to choose slogans that appeared on Racing’s shirts during some games, “so they can actually put that ownership to work,” according to Carlos Bayala, creative director at Madre.

“We have to be smarter”

Reflecting on the campaign’s success, Madre says that “I think advertising and marketing pollution are having a hugely negative effect on brands, an effect that people don’t really notice until one brand does it in a different, friendly way. Marketing desperation for brand presence is suicidal- brands should not bombard people anymore. It’s the old paradigm, and it worked to an extent, but now we have to be smarter.”

He adds that “Now, it’s simplistic to state that brands could change this immediately: It’s not easy, it requires communication efforts and brains to let people understand why as corporations we need to change the logic and the way we communicate, even if it means a short-term economic sacrifice.”

A subtler approach could pay dividends for some brands

Tobacco and alcohol brands could also benefit from this type of strategy. Brewers are often criticised for sponsoring sports events and teams on the basis that they encourage underage fans to consume alcohol (and, more generally, encourage overconsumption), as well as advertising on television programmes and in publications that are popular with youngsters. For tobacco manufacturers, the appeal is potentially even greater, as their ability to market their brands has been increasingly circumscribed over recent decades, particularly in the European Union.

More generally, unpopular brands, such as oil company BP in the wake of the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill, could also utilise this strategy to quietly rebuild their brands without provoking the ire of consumers by being too visible.

For some, the old way is still the best

Of course, this type of subtlety is not suitable for every brand. The likes of McDonalds and Starbucks thrive on ubiquity, both in terms of their marketing and their multiple locations in many urban areas. However, even these companies are toning down the volume of their marketing: To mark its 40th anniversary, Starbucks redesigned its logo during early 2011, removing the words “Starbucks Coffee” and leaving just its mermaid symbol.

Future scenarios

Brand initiatives like that of Hipotecario may become more common as marketers come to appreciate that adding clutter and adding value are not necessarily the same thing. As some traditional branding strategies begin to lose impact, the best long-term marketing strategy for some brands may be no more a reflective silence.

Brand visibility does not necessarily mean real brand awareness, and certainly does not guarantee brand love. Moreover, the huge growth in the popularity of social media can significantly amplify the impact of a more subtle approach to marketing: According to creative director Bayala, mentioned above: “the positive spin is bigger than ever now through social networks and electronic word of mouth.”