To brand PPE, or not brand PPE—That is the question

The healthcare category tied closely to sports marketing is not a new idea. For decades, brands have tied themselves to the biggest and brightest names and teams in sports as a way to boost sales and awareness.

In the last decade or so, we have seen a rush of hospitals and health organizations align themselves as “official” partners. And it’s impossible to avoid big pharma as they flood our devices and screens with sponsorships, especially those targeted at a slightly older male demo sitting around enjoying their favorite (sports) action.

With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic a year ago, there were several new sponsorship categories in their infancy when COVID began. Now, as we prepare to return to fans in stadia and arenas does this mean that new categories, and new engagement platforms will now emerge?

The Arizona Diamondbacks-partnered with Dignity Health-won an award from Defeat Melanoma for their sunscreen display at Talking Stick in 2020 Defeat Melanoma

There has been an uptick in health-related verticals reflective of the times.

Pre-pandemic for example, almost every team in Major League Baseball (MLB)‘s Spring Training Cactus League had skin screening kiosks set up in the last few years. The stations boast skin care messaging to go along with  product available specially for older fans and the very young ones looking to enjoy spring training, but for all looking to avoid the perils of UV rays. Any number of teams, and huge international events such as the Australian Open, offer sunscreen stations where fans can get an extra squirt of protection, all sponsored by companies who were focused on healthy skin. Subtle but very effective.

Then last winter, as the rumor of a global pandemic took hold in the U.S., we saw teams substantially ramp up things like hand sanitizer stations, to the point where Golden State Warriors President Rick Welts noted that sanitizer was suddenly the hottest product at the new Chase Center last February.

“The biggest problem we were having in the two or three games before this happened was people stealing the Purell out of the restrooms, because it was already starting to be a commodity in short supply,” Welts told The Ringer.

Pandemic inspiration
Fanatics pivoted quickly last March, turning jerseys into PPE gowns and masks Fanatics

When the pandemic arrived and stopped play last March, the PPE shortage pressed sports business entrepreneurs into action for front line workers. Michael Rubin and Fanatics pivoted from making replica jerseys to taking material from logoed teams and making face protective products, while companies like Bauer re-imagined hockey masks into plastic shields for frontline workers.

GO-Clips from Osun Labs combine pandemic safety, mask comfort–and branding Osun Labs

That pivoting continued through “bubbles,” “wubbles” and now with limited returns of fans to the stands.

As teams and leagues look to find new revenue streams to offset the massive losses and make goods in sponsorship revenue, creativity and innovation is especially critical.

Innovation was expanded last week when Osun Labs, a Boston-based business made up of a group of sports business first-movers and entrepreneurs, launched the “GO-Clip,” what they promise to be just the first of a series of products. The simple concept will help anyone, from healthcare and foodworkers to kids on a baseball diamond and even NFL refs, to wear a mask safely, securely and without ear pain and issues.

Oh, and yes, GO-Clips are already licensees of MLB, National Hockey League, Professional Bull Riders and WWE and will be licensed for just about any and all teams in the coming months.

“The pandemic has forced us to interact in new ways, and people expect safety from the companies, institutions and brands they rely on daily,” said Jeff Eagles, Co-Founder & Chief Product Officer of Osun Labs at launch. “The GO-Clips are just the beginning of our work over the past year, and our team is dedicated to continue building additional solutions that help us get back to enjoying our lives responsibly.”

While all that activity is nice and noted, it doesn’t really fall into new sources of revenue just yet. Is there a way for teams to be respectful, conscious of the marketplace and innovative in telling the stories of brands in and around the space who are both unique and doing great work?

Economic impact through health-centric focus?

“Our industry and how we build consumer confidence in returning to events in large numbers is going to be critical to economic recovery, yet the events business has largely been ignored in terms of economic relief,” Oak View’s Tim Leiweke told viewers of a Sportico webinar earlier this month. “Maybe some see what we do is trivial compared to other industries because we have such big venues, but in reality having safe, large gatherings will spur more dollars into local economies than almost anything else.”

Good news is that consumer confidence is back on the upswing, according to Kraft AnalyticsFan Demand Index (FDI) that tracks which fans will attend sports and live events, what do they expect when they return and how has their willingness to pay changed?

At the beginning of the year, most of the 32 markets KAGR tracks continued to see drops in FDI. But with the vaccine rolling out and positive tests slowing, KAGR’s February 10 FDI update shows the first increase in six reports, gaining 10 percent, meaning overall consumer behavior is positive.

There are also many areas where hard goods can continue to amp up awareness as fans enter back into buildings. Cleaning brands, who are already assisting teams and leagues with venue clean-up, can authentically drive home healthy environmental messages as fans return.

“We have been working with many of our partners to find both new ways for them to engage but also to amplify the messages of health and safety that they are already involved with,” said Jim Van Stone, President, Business Operations & Chief Commercial Officer, Monumental Sports & Entertainment. “Clorox is a great example of a brand that has come in and helped us solve real time questions and will continue to do so as we return fans to arenas down the line. We were able to work with them from both a product and a marketing side to build out a program that helps them reach a wider audience while ensuring safety and security for fans at the right time. Then we have other partners like NEC and Leidos who are working on a host of business opportunities that are contributing to health and safety, so building awareness campaigns with them to reach an audience who may not know of their work in that area has been very beneficial. We are looking at many other areas as well, all of which can help raise consumer awareness and also open up new doors for partnerships, so long as they are smart and respectful projects.”

Think: tone and fit
A Screenshot from Lysol’s MLB Postseason activation

The aforementioned Clorox, which had previous sports partnerships with MLB’s Boston Red Sox (in 2018) and San Diego Padres (in 2015), established a new partnership with the NBA and WNBA in July and played a visible part in pro hoops’ return to play.

In October, Reckitt Benckiser‘s Lysol made perfect sense as an MLB sponsor to “leverage Lysol’s 130 years of germ kill expertise and innovation to help maintain a high standard of healthy habits and hygiene for MLB personnel across the league, during both games and training sessions.

There are also many in-arena opportunities to story tell around health and wellness that already exist—and can be amped up further.

“When I was at the Big East, we had added Libman Mops as a sponsor, since there was a natural need for products to clean the floor during timeouts. It was an open category, and we were able to show ROI for a company that heeded to find a way to cut through the clutter,” added Ann Wells Crandall, a veteran sports marketing executive at properties like the NBA, the New York Road Runners and the Big East who is also now teaching sports marketing at St. Bonaventure University.

Libman was already a player in college and pro hoops sponsorships pre-pandemic. Will that expand? Univ. of Illinois

“Is it weird that brands can look around and find creative ways to insert themselves into a category tied to health and cleanliness? I don’t think so, as long as its not contrived.”

That fine line of appropriate vs. contrived will be tested in some areas as mass audiences come back. For example, can teams and leagues, who are selling branded masks—many with a cause tied to them—find a traditional sponsor who would look to gain a unique spot by showing up on mask handouts?

It depends on the tone and the fit.

“I don’t expect many, if any at all, non-health-related companies associating with a sponsorship of sanitization or PPE upon return to venues,” said Michael Neuman, Founder, EVP & Managing Partner, Scout Sports & Entertainment and professor at Columbia University. “In a time when brands are über careful on their messaging and what ‘causes’ they align with, this would come across as blatantly inauthentic and opportunistic. Hospitals, health providers and emergency walk-in clinics, which have exploded during the pandemic, make more sense from an alignment perspective and have permission to engage with fans on a platform of safety via their own efficacy.”

Translation? Don’t expect your local sub shop to throw its logo on a mask giveaway for say, the Brooklyn Cyclones, when minor league baseball begins.

A company like Pfizer? Perhaps. A local health consortium? Possibly. But an energy drink? Not likely. And not recommended.

“In the same way we advise clients to create sustainable, long-standing, emotional relationships with fans, we would advise against any clients associating with in-venue efforts to facilitate the safe return of fans if they don’t belong in that conversation,” Neuman added. “If you are a brand outside the ‘category fiber’ of hospitals and health care, or at least with equity in disinfectants or sanitization, the short term adulation is not worth the prospect of fan backlash.”

Where there is a fit, such as Northwell Health‘s 10-year founding sponsorship deal with the New York Islanders and their under-construction venue, UBS Arena, that focuses on community-based wellness programming and was announced with a virtual panel event focused on sanitization and the future of live events.

Where does cause marketing belong?

That sponsorship is a perfect segue to cause marketing and social responsibility tied to return to play. We have seen a host of brands look to engage in conversations tied to issues bigger than their products in the months of civil unrest. Will that create yet another area of sponsorship that has been untapped in the past?

“Before last spring cause marketing and social responsibility were maybe sixth or seventh on the priority list of most teams, leagues and brands in terms of fan engagement and execution,” said Harrie Bakst, co-founder of WCPG, a firm that works on cause and social programs with athletes, celebrities, charitable foundations and brands. “Since all the social unrest we saw in the spring, those areas are now first or second when engagement comes up.”

“Now what do you stand for and what actions are you taking are in conversations much earlier than ever, and we have been able to work with all interested parties to start building really effective and long-lasting programs that aren’t just lip service and box checking. Those programs are showing real ROI and are here to stay.”

So, in the end, we expect new lines of business to be carved out. And those will help the bottom line, not just of teams and leagues, but of corporations as well.

“We will always be asking what the return is on the spend, and can we deliver what we say, whether it is a brand or a property,” Crandall added. “Now that health and wellness and safety are so top of mind in getting us to return to a semblance of business as usual, I think these areas are more important than ever, and the creative innovators who can find those best partnerships and executions will be successful, just like they were when other emerging categories have risen up in the past. It takes cooperation and execution, and I think in this area we will see a great deal of both.”

Health. Safety. Social responsibility. Cause marketing. Categories that have been around, only now they are front and center.

Just look left and right when you re-enter the building later this year. You won’t miss them.