7 great (and not so great) sports marketing campaigns

February 23, 2017 Mark Haddon

The synergy between digital marketing and sports is undeniable. Done well it has the ability to capture the hearts and minds of sports fans. Brands that use sponsorships or digital promotions have increased affinity and loyalty with their audiences, while mobile technologies and social media are transforming both sports and sports businesses. A potent mix. But what are some of the best examples of digital sports marketing? And what are the lessons learned?   

Red Bull Stratos

Remember this? Years in the making, the record breaking “Space Dive” was the most watched YouTube live stream ever in 2012 with 8 million concurrent viewers. Across the world millions huddled around desks, watched from phones, and sat transfixed in classrooms as Austrian Felix Baumgartner jumped from the edge of space into seemingly blue oblivion. And the purpose of this dramatic enterprise? A marketing stunt. An amazing undertaking, yes, but a fantastic advertisement for Austrian energy drink brand Red Bull? Double yes.

What we liked about this particular campaign was its innovative use of live streaming. It paved the way for further streaming on social media and showed – done right – it could be another tool in the digital marketers’ arsenal. It also matched the ethos of Red Bull’s brand. A marketing strategy that still uses social media for maximum effect, capturing people with equal parts amazement and awe. Whether through the traditional sponsoring of athletes, extreme stunts, or the full scale ownership of successful sports teams like Red Bull Racing.

The only slight dampener on the Red Bull Stratos success story? The relationship between Skydiver Felix and his employer nosedived after he failed to mention the name of energy drink before he jumped.

Under Armour – Rule Yourself

A brand that has slowly come from nowhere to become a global player, Under Armour is a sports company with attitude. It was exactly this gritty realism that it attempted to capture with its Rule Yourself campaign. It was first launched in the spring of 2016, then pushed again via social media before the 2016 Rio Olympics. The outcome was phenomenal. The Michael Phelps focused ad became the second most shared ad of the 2016 Olympics and the fifth most shared Olympic ad of all time.

According to AdWeek the ad struck “the right emotional chord with its target audience: millennial men between the ages of 18 and 34”. A challenge at the best of times. While VP of Marketing and Insight at Unruly, Devra Prywes, noted that the aesthetic of the ad worked in its favour: " with younger viewers, over three-quarters will lose trust in a brand if an ad feels fake. Under Armour's recent campaigns are all consistently authentic”.  The athlete himself even noted that the ad "showed exactly how I prepare". Prywes also stated that the key emotion associated with the ad was “inspiration” and that for millennial males this evoked a particularly strong reaction. Something that no doubt helped it get shared repeatedly.     

Betfair – Back Yourself

Betfair’s “Back Yourself” campaign was certainly different – different in a good sense. It offered runners at the 2015 London Marathon a £20 bet against themselves. Using key information such as a runner’s running history, training efforts and target time the bookie calculated the odds of the runner completing their challenge. It then provided them with a free £20 bet on the outcome. If the target time was reached, Betfair donated the winnings plus a £20 stake to the runners’ fundraising page. If the target time was missed, the £20 free stake was donated to Cancer Research UK. The result was thousands of pounds raised for good causes and positive publicity for Betfair.  Since the success of its first rollout Betfair has expanded and returned to the campaign again and again. Opening up the betting to more events and individuals willing to bet against themselves. It would appear you really can have a win, win situation.

Sport England – This Girl Can

First launched in early 2015, Sport England’s “This Girl Can” campaign was a ground-breaking success. It was created to tackle the gender gap in sports participation between males and females in the UK. The campaign sought: “to tell the real story of women who play sport by using images that are the complete opposite of the idealised and stylised images of women we are now used to seeing”. The result was spectacular. According to Sport England’s own figures, This Girl Can directly resulted in 2.8 million women engaging in more active lifestyles.

What made the campaign a particular success was its ability to capture minds across channels and its creation of an online community of individuals who would normally be ignored. The stats speak for themselves: 600,000 women and girls joined the This Girl Can social media community, while the campaign has been talked about on social media every single day since it launched. Search via the hashtag #thisgirlcan on twitter and see for yourself.  It was of no surprise that Sport England choose to return to the campaign again in 2017.

Seattle Seahawks and Starbucks

Local company helps local sports team. It’s a classic scenario. However, what happens when the local company is Seattle based Starbucks and the team is the Seahawks of the NFL? Some pretty cool marketing that’s for sure. The two Washington state giants teamed up to produce co-branded cup sleeves that not only looked like Seahawks jerseys but featured a Snapcode that allowed Seahawks fans to access exclusive content on Snapchat.  The campaign worked not just because of the Seattle connection but because of how it used lifestyle and everyday technology. A coffee in one hand and a smartphone in the other – hopefully with Snapchat installed.  This smart social campaign was produced in honour of the Seahawks reaching the playoffs, and was a great way of incorporating a sponsor.

Paddy Power and social media

Paddy Power’s use of social media is well documented. With millions of followers, it’s a staple of many people’s feeds. With virtually round-the-clock Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat posts; when it comes to creating content the betting company thinks like a publisher. And like a publisher its success comes from the tone of voice and attitude that runs throughout its advertising and social engagement; whether print, online display or video.  On its social effort, Paddy Powers head of engagement Paul Mallon has commented: “I can’t think of many brands who produce the standard of in-house social and editorial content that we do”. And he’s right.

Without focusing too hard on one particular campaign, Paddy Power’s ads and posts all have the same traits: mischief; disruption; and controversy. Whether trending when pretending to chop down the Amazon rainforest in support of England in the 2014 World Cup, or tweeting on the delightful haircuts of footballers Aguero and Falcao, Paddy Power wants to engage with its punters in real-time. It’s a cost effective way to build brand awareness, increase affinity with the brand, and differentiate themselves from competition. And that’s why we salute Paddy Power’s use of social media.

The bad: 20th Century Fox and Manchester United

Somewhere, someone at 20th Century Fox thought that linking up with Manchester United for cross promotion purposes was a good idea. How better to sell films than to parachute Wayne Rooney into trailers? The result is predictably horrific. Let me explain, Wayne Rooney is a footballer and not a well known actor. Respected Guardian film critic Peter Bradshaw when analysing a Deadpool tie-in commented: “It is genuinely difficult to tell if this intentionally seeks to align the pansexuality of Deadpool with what some have seen as the homoerotic quality of footballers’ goal celebrations”. Indeed.

Ham-fisted in the extreme, placing Manchester United stars into trailers for upcoming blockbusters hasn’t proved a massive success. Take the latest attempt: a mash-up of Rooney and the upcoming Wolverine film Logan: replies to the video on social media include banter such as "delete" and “why?”. Result! With over 72 million Facebook followers and 10.2 million also on Twitter it’s understandable why 20th Century Fox wanted to join forces with Manchester United. It’s just a pity the result was utterly awful.


So there you have it six, exceptional (and one not so great) digital sports marketing campaigns. Each campaign notably different but what they all have in common is a unique engagement with their target audience. One sport in 2017 that could learn from these remarkable campaigns is Formula 1. Recently sold to Liberty Media, and in need of a desperate shot in the arm, how F1 engages with its audience will be key to revitalising the sport and its sponsorships. And with the new owners wanting to “make every race a Super Bowl”, learning from the social media use of Lewis Hamilton will be key. Oh, and maybe hiring a member of Gorillaz as a driver too. 

The honest truth is we love remarkable advertising here at Bannerflow, whether online display or via social media. Here's the three lessons that we think marketers should take from these campaigns:

  • Be innovative in the application of technology 
  • Be social, engage with viewers across channels 
  • Be real, audiences want something that is authentic.  
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