Is employee engagement the new frontier for sport sponsorship?
Almost 10 years ago to the day (16 June 2009 to be exact), I was at Nielsen when we were announced as the official market research provider to the London 2012 Olympics. Our $15 million cash and services investment was primarily an external B2B-facing marketing and product development exercise but over the years it had a big impact on employee engagement.
I remember the pride and excitement at telling friends and family – none had any interest in market research – that we were “working on the Olympics” and “Seb (as in Coe) had given us a talk.” During the opening ceremony I even told a pal “yeah, we did some work on this.” I meant the event as a whole (not the ceremony) but the very stretched point had been made about my exciting work life.
As well as the kudos, there were performance-based competitions for prizes such as visits to the Olympic park construction and event tickets. We also had talks from athletes on the realities of being an Olympian. However, it was often the little things that also had an impact, such as changing the meeting room names from tube stops to Olympic giants such as Daley Thompson, Steve Redgrave and Tessa Sanderson.
It all just made work that little bit more interesting and had the effect of ‘lifting’ the staff, particularly in what might be considered a relatively ‘boring’ area of business.
A turning tide
I’d forgotten about the employee engagement impact until recently attending events where HSBC and jobs brand Indeed talked of the importance they put on how their consumer-facing sponsorships affected employees.
The head of cycling partnerships at HSBC UK said in the first year of any partnership the only KPI he measures against is the impact on staff. Indeed said one of the biggest benefits of their sponsorship of German Bundesliga football team Eintracht Frankfurt (circa the equivalent of Everton in England’s Premier League, based on recent league positions) was the confidence and validation it gave staff. Employees, particularly sales people, now felt they could pick up the phone to anyone as they were now at the “top table”.
In all these sponsorship examples, the employee-facing benefits were of secondary importance. However, there’s an increasing incidence of sponsorship vehicles being chosen primarily for how they can engage employees.
So, I spoke to Nick Tuppen, CEO of Threshold Sports, who produce outdoor and challenge events primarily for employee engagement purposes. They’ve attracted sponsors such as Deloitte, Heineken, Dixons Carphone and Dulux. I asked him what rights holders should be thinking about in regards to how they could make themselves more attractive to sponsors by thinking about the employee engagement angle.
Why is employee activation becoming a bigger factor in why brands choose the rights holders they do?
Tuppen says the demand for employee engagement has increased as the “battle for talent has become more extreme.” Led by a younger generation, the expectations from a job and an employer are much higher throughout organisations now.
He says that Google really paved the way for this with the employee benefits they started offering years ago from free lunches to cool workspaces. Tuppen also points out that churn rates are now much higher. A “job for life” is now an outdated concept, so, for retaining staff, your “employee-facing brand” is as important as your consumer-facing one.
Furthermore, the cost of recruitment is massive. So if you’re replacing lots of people every 2-3 years, it’s a major line item on your profit & loss (P&L). Thus, ways of keeping employees more engaged are becoming more important. In this regard sponsorship, particularly sports, is a big tool in the box.
It’s also a great way to differentiate oneself from the competition. Deloitte, for example, cite their sponsorship of Ride across Britain in their material.
Tuppen says, “it’s enormously popular internally” at Deloitte as it costs around £1,600 per entry (paid for by the firm in return for a fundraising commitment). Deloitte get about 6-7 applications through a ballot for every place they get on the ride. It’s now a key element of communications from graduate recruitment through to senior client engagement.
It means some people thinking of leaving the firm may consider it worth sticking around for that event if they’re successful. “They then do it, meet more people from the company, have a great experience and it means they’re more likely to stay.”
Which sectors are going particularly big on this area?
He says a company is more likely to get involved in this type of employee engagement activity, the higher their investment and costs in HR – be it salaries and/or recruitment. So, for example, it’s more relevant for the likes of financial services companies than those who pay staff through the gig economy.
It is also key for companies who are customer-service led, such as those with large call centres. Partnering with a trusted rights-holder, especially if you share common-ground, gives a sponsor more credibility and “talkability” with people you’re trying to reach on the phone. Think Indeed’s partnership with Eintracht Frankfurt.
As Tuppen notes, “a good sponsorship is a great way of short-cutting to this talkability.”
What do brands look for in rights holders to assess how useful they’ll be for employee activation?
Tuppen says that this is almost entirely dependent “on what the brand is looking to achieve.” Is it driving well-being among staff, forging a brand identity internally (particularly if you’re a newer company), bringing a brand-purpose or charity element to life?
He points out that employee engagement is “a very broad term”, so a brand should be very clear about what it’s trying to do before jumping in. Like many others, Threshold uses Gallup’s 12 question survey for companies to understand how they perform on employee engagement.
He says this reveals what areas of employee engagement need work on and, thus, what type of sponsorship would be required.
What should rights holders be doing to become better at offering employee activations?
The primary thing, he says, “is listening from the start about what a sponsor is trying to achieve or what problem they’re trying to solve.”
Secondly, don’t be afraid to build out new elements of a sponsorship offering to meet those needs. For example, he cites their Race to the Stones endurance event. Sponsor, Dixons Carphone, had the logistical issue that not all of their staff could attend, particularly those overseas.
Thus, Threshold is building a complementary digital platform where staff not participating in the physical event can mirror it by doing the number of “steps” it would take to complete the actual physical distance (easily measurable with modern smartphones).
There is a competition element built-in for different offices about who can complete the required number of steps it would take to complete the actual 100-kilometre race. This will be run for the first time in June this year.
Tuppen says this wasn’t something they’d considered offering “but we listened”. He reinforces, however, how important it is for a rights holder to be “realistic about what you can and can’t offer so be honest with sponsors.” It does also need to be a natural fit or extension of your prime offering to work.
What should rights holders be thinking about to tap into this trend?
Tuppen surmises that “it’s crucial to be listening to what workplace trends and challenges are coming in the next five years.”
For example, remote working is on the increase so employee interaction is falling, be it through “water cooler” chatting or going out for lunch. Consequently, there’s a need to replace a year’s worth of this interaction or bonding in short intense periods so many companies are seeing more value in 48-hour staff events for employee engagement purposes.
As a rights holder, he says, “think how your offering, rights and activations can replace things that are being lost in the traditional workplace as technology and practices develop.”
Also, as sports sponsorship is a great way to:
- Motivate and engage staff
- Make them think better of their employer
- Unlock the potential in people and up performance
…think how can you package your rights and assets to meet these specific needs. What “money can’t buy” experiences can your sponsor offer their staff? What motivational talks can you give their staff to improve skills by learning from your experiences or regime. How can what you do be weaved into engaging staff competitions? Is there a charitable, fund-raising or CSR element that naturally fits with you? How can you contribute to the health and well-being of a sponsor’s employees?
As Tuppen astutely pointed out, every department in a business relies on engaged employees and the right sponsorship can hit multiple objectives and departments. Thus, if your rights and assets can speak to the c-suite, sales, HR , CSR through employee engagement and not just marketing you’re much more protected or “sticky” when it comes time to renewal and much less vulnerable if your deal relies on one internal champion who moves on.