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MKTG Insights: What Sponsors Can Learn from Nelson Mandela

MKTG Insights: What Sponsors Can Learn from Nelson Mandela

As tens of thousands of citizens, as well as over 80 heads of state gathered in Johannesburg yesterday for a memorial service to honor the late Nelson Mandela, MKTG remembers a transformational figure who not only taught us about the world and our role in it, but also about the power of sport.

At the 1995 Rugby World, Mandela’s public support for the South African National Team sent a message to the world that South Africa would emerge from the end of Apartheid as a united nation with one identity. Behind the scenes, Mandela was instrumental in the ultimately successful South African bids to host the 2003 Cricket World Cup and the 2010 FIFA World Cup. Despite political backlash in his own country, Mandela saw the opportunity to both inspire his own people, and showcase his country on the world stage through hosting major events. The potential of sport to heal, inspire, and connect people was never lost on Mandela.

Mandela’s unwavering commitment to do the right thing, not the popular thing, presents an important lesson for those in a position to influence change in modern society, of which brands and sponsors are certainly included. Sponsors who align themselves with the power of sport are doing so to connect with an audience at a passion point; like Mandela used sport to advance an ideology, sponsors use sport to advance their brand.

What can brands and sponsors learn from Mandela?

1) Associating with and supporting the passion of a nation (or your target market) will give life to your message: Find a property that evokes passion and has the reach and resonance to carry your message forward. Mandela aligned himself with sports properties that resonated with his target market in his quest to earn support for his message of unity. Sport was an authentic fit for Mandela because it brings people together to work towards a a common purpose. Supporting something that your target market cares about helps to convert audiences into advocates. By being where they are and showing support brands make it easier for people to pick up and share what they've seen.

2) Going beyond a financial investment is necessary: Brands must invest their heart and soul into what they do from either a sponsorship / community investment perspective. In order to add strength and authenticity to the message, organizational leaders can be leveraged as symbols. Like Mandela’s stature added weight to his message, when CEO’s and/or senior leaders are leveraged in sponsorship communication and rally behind the message, the overall strength of the message and its believability is heightened. MKTG has observed this trend in-market via symbolic CEO’s like Steve Jobs (Apple) or Paul Polman (Unilever), and even in our own clients through leaders like Rick Waugh (recently retired CEO, Scotiabank), Stephen Wetmore (Canadian Tire Corporation) and Jim Treleving (Boston Pizza). When these senior leaders publicly demonstrate their belief in what the company is doing from a sponsorship perspective people notice.

3) The best sponsorship strategies are focused both internally and externally: Mandela did not only align himself with sports to make an outward-looking statement to the world; he was attempting to inspire a new generation of South Africans to live differently. Likewise, sponsorships are not simply a consumer-facing marketing vehicle. Rather, they can be leveraged internally in organizations through employee engagement initiatives, as well as internal charitable initiatives. A brands employees can be its most powerful word of mouth marketing channel - engaging and empowering this group can have a huge returns.

There are few people in history who have used their platform, in conjunction with the platform of sport, to advance a message of peace as successfully as Nelson Mandela. While the world mourns his passing, this moment serves as an opportunity to ask a question of today's influencers: who will follow the trail he blazed? Who will use the power of sport to advance a message of unity next? Will it happen in Sochi in 2014 in the face of discriminatory LGBT legislation? Time will tell. For now, MKTG remembers a once in a generation leader and the extraordinary impact he left on the world.

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