After Pepsi spent $31 million to sponsor the halftime show at the 2021 Super Bowl, the company set out to measure brand recognition before and after the event. The results weren’t too surprising given the high-profile showcase: a reach of 96.4 million, the most talked-about Super Bowl brand on Twitter, and alignment with the behavior of viewers, who drive Pepsi’s biggest sales day of the year during the big game. Plus, historically, Super Bowl sponsorship has yielded longer tail effects such as a 10-15% increase in household spending, according to a 2015 study by researchers at Stanford University and Humboldt University in Berlin.

So there’s no question that major events offer great exposure in front of a rapt audience, but more brands are looking for ways to find impact beyond brand recognition, and good corporate citizenship is playing a role. A 2020 study found that consumers opt for brands that align with their mission and values four times more than others.

To reach consumers looking for greater depth and meaning, brands are considering more meaningful ways to partner with athletes and teams. Nike backed the WNBA when it announced it would dedicate its 2020-21 season to social justice. And the Olympics and the National Women’s Soccer League have drawn innovative, mission-aligned approaches to sports marketing that may provide a guide for others.

Putting a Focus on Women

Seven years after the National Women’s Soccer League first kicked off, it faced the threat of going under. Ratings and popularity had soared during its 2019 win in the World Cup, but funding was paltry and its relationship with US Soccer was rocky. Sports Illustrated said that the NWSL was “not guaranteed to exist next year.”

And then Budweiser stepped in, bringing sponsorship support in a new way. A multi-year deal included TV and naming rights, but its focus quickly turned toward becoming a partner that would drive the league’s survival. Its campaign, “Future Official,” which won a Cannes Lion, was a siren call for other sponsors to get on board as “official” sponsors, too. 

“One expects strong Budweiser advertising, they’re so good at it,” says Lisa Baird, NWSL commissioner and Signal 2021 speaker. “For us, they created a campaign to talk about something that would have impact, and it came true.” By the end of the year, NWLS had inked Mastercard, Ally Bank, P&G, and others, and found itself on more solid footing. 

In general, women’s sports have struggled with the kind of funding seen in men’s sports, making this kind of partnership ripe for others. In 2019, Nike conveyed a more integrated role in the future of the sport by hosting the WNBA’s draft at its NY headquarters, followed by a panel discussion featuring stars such as Sheryl Swoopes, hashing through the challenges of getting more women into sports.

Leaning into a Theme

Sports events that designate a theme give brands a focus that more explicitly goes beyond simple exposure. The Tokyo 2020 Olympics’ themes included “Connecting to Tomorrow,” which focused on the legacy passed onto future generations. That includes the world’s ecology. P&G eyed this opportunity as a way to showcase its sustainability mission, ultimately partnering with the Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee to develop the “Podium Project.” The Podium Project called on the Japanese public to gather recyclable materials that would be used to build the podiums on which medalists would stand. Major retailers and 113 schools were involved. Over nine months, the campaign yielded 24.5 tons of recyclable materials, enough to build podiums to be used at the Olympics and Paralympics. After the events, the materials will be recycled back into packaging for P&G products. (Learn how other businesses are developing recycling programs from TerraCycle’s Tom Szaky at Signal.)

Turning an Idea into a Value

Going into the 2014 Olympics, Visa revived and revised a former tagline, “It’s everywhere you want to be,” to “everywhere you want to be,” to reflect the financial service firm’s growing breadth of products and services, such as mobile and e-commerce, beyond credit cards. A TV campaign featuring Olympian Sarah Hendrickson tied the new idea to the introduction of women’s ski jumping as a new event at the 2014 Sochi Games, saying that the event was “my everywhere.” For the NWLS’ Baird, Visa’s campaign elided two elements of marketing. “They took an incredibly simple product idea and made it an enormously important value for the Olympics,” she says.

Supporting Athletes, Off the Field

Endorsements are commonplace, but brands are looking for new ways to convey their support of athletes. P&G’s 2016 campaign, “Thank You, Mom,” celebrated the other people in athletes’ lives. Naturally, for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, the company brought a similar focus into its sponsorship, centering on athletes’ actions for good. A film, “Your Goodness Is Your Greatness,” celebrates these efforts from athletes off the field. “Good Is Gold” is a film series focused more specifically on how athletes are working to fight bias and inequality. And its Athletes for Good Fund gave athletes an opportunity to pitch their charitable causes for funding.

Supporting sports teams and athletes offers new opportunities to do good while also doing well.