Digitally fit: how sport brands champion innovation

Entering 2017 one thing was clear for the digital sector, keeping pace with consumers through innovation best practice is at the forefront of brand growth and consumer engagement.

With this in mind, e3 kicked off its thought leadership series with a focus on, sport and fitness, sector leaders of innovation and experience.

“Brands can learn best practice from other sectors,” announced Miranda Glover, e3 Business Director as she introduced brands such as GLL, Comic Relief and Unilever to e3’s latest whitepaper 2017: Digital Trends for the Year Ahead. Miranda presented some of the thinking around the sector - how consumer wants should drive digital delivery and how sport is creating experiences that serve those desires in spades.

Ironman, cyclist, swimmer, runner – it’s fair to say that the first speaker, e3’s Managing Director Neil Collard, knows a thing or two about how sport and fitness are central to consumer’s lives.

“Sport really matters. It’s important for society and for individuals. What brands are tapping into is that connection that needs to happen for consumers to really engage with sport and fitness on a core level. It’s a way of life, an experience that you live and breathe.” As Neil went on to aptly say, “nobody loves their washing machine brand so much that they get it tattooed onto them.”

He was quick to address some of the issues within innovation, that real innovation is something that adds to the user experience in a dynamic and constant way. It is not something that plays into brands’ and agencies’ egos, it must be customer focused at its core and it should work as hard as a website.

Neil cited Strava, the cycling and running app, as an example of a relatively new player who is keeping up with, and in some cases, exceeding large historical brands such as Nike and Apple Health. While big brands are putting a lot of money into the commercial applications of these apps, Strava is focusing solely on social consumer experience through sharing, competition and a large investment into data.

“Strava is one of those apps that you go to immediately after cycling, you’ll get a huge rush of excitement checking your stats against your friends, colleagues and it’ll spur you on to do more – for many the experience of cycling and Strava are intrinsically linked now, you don’t do one without the other.”

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Neil summed up with some fundamental practices for innovation and innovative strategy:

  • Obsess about the customer
  • Create meaningful and beautiful design
  • Build a service, not a product
  • Solve a problem
  • Don’t do innovation, for innovation’s sake

Digitally Fit: How Sport Brands Champion Innovation from e3

Eliza Hazlerigg, Strategist at LSU, and David Stevens, Head of Strategy at LSU, introduced their consultancy as lovers of sport, exemplified by their work with Nike, Puma, Adidas and the 2012 London Olympics.

“Like digital, innovation can succeed at scale,” David went on to add, using Nike as a prime example of innovation and success, while also remarking that it’s taken the brand almost a decade to get to where they are now. Eliza cited non-conventional sports and supporting sporting platforms like e-sports and Twitch as companies who’ve achieved innovation quickly and on a huge scale with e-sports athletes being some of the highest paid sports stars in the world.

David picked up the metaphorical baton and stated that, “for brands to succeed at scale they need to do three things – include me, inspire me and improve me.”

Include me

Inclusion is a huge problem within sport. Sport participation is expensive when you consider travel, coaching, equipment and time. The poorest social groups typically have the greatest inactivity levels within the community. Brands need to remember to target mass users rather than the niche. Universal appeal is a surefire way to succeed at scale.

Inspire me

Young people playing sport has dropped 4% in the last seven years due to lack of motivation. Sport needs to be exciting and have the promise of that excitement continuing as you get better at the game.

Improve me

This is the most obvious aspect of fitness but probably the worst served by brands. Brands can accumulate all the statistics in the world, but consumers need to receive actionable insights into how they can get better.

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David summed up, “A brand like Nike is succeeding at all three. Bill Bowerman, Nike co-founder, famously once said, ‘If you have a body you are an athlete.’ This coupled with the inspirational tag line, ‘Just Do It’ shows Nike’s commitment to inclusion, inspiration and improvement.”

Great brands keep their users in the loop – include me, improve me, and inspire me. This virtuous cycle will keep users loyal and engaged with the experience of the brand. Simply put, for great innovation in sport - ‘there is no finish line.”

Innovation in Sport: Success at Scale from e3

As lunch was served the brands in the room mulled over the points that were presented, extrapolated on how it related to their own sector, and the challenges they were currently facing.

Kate Jones and Sarah Horn from Comic Relief cited Neil’s “innovation for the sake of agency ego” as ringing true for their brand, although usually an innovation project starts out with good intentions. “We went back to the very beginning and looked at what the core value of Comic Relief and recognised the need to put noses back at the centre of Red Nose Day. It sounds simple, the nose has such historical and community resonance, it’s where we started, so why not give it the esteem it deserves. We stopped thinking about ourselves, and starting thinking about the consumer again.”

Iain Morrison at Better/GLL echoed the sentiment about focusing on the customer above all else, “due to the fitness sector we’re in, it often remains static or follows trends on a whim. We have a similar problem that automotive dealerships and car brands have, we have the data and our partners want the data, but during the transaction the customer can lose out, because that data isn’t driving an engaging experience. Due to the legacy of the company process digital transformation can be quite slow in the fitness sector, but as Neil mentioned earlier, we’re trying to become a service, not just a product.”

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Neil responded, “it’s easy for us to say, ‘put the customer at the core of your business’ but we understand large legacy issues within business. As you say, the automotive sector’s symbiotic relationship between dealer and manufacturer creates barriers to innovation but has remained the model for selling cars largely due to the fear of change. However, some of those businesses who refuse to innovate may not exist in five years’ time, due to the fast-paced technological and digital advancements in society. That said, brands don’t want to just ‘do digital’, it’s too easy to create digital solutions that make no sense – you have to understand the problem, get involved in the business and get under its skin to affect real change.”

Sonja Wiencke, Fundraising Innovation Officer at The Children’s Society, touched on the barriers the third sector are facing now. “To fundraise effectively, you need to create an experience and tell a story that resonates with your users. However, in the current climate it’s tricky to get hold of the data you need to tell that story. Innovation is challenging within the third sector due to supporters wanting to know that their money goes towards doing good. If your innovation fails, you need to explain that to supporters.”

Matt Boffey, Founder of LSU, discussed some of the topics on his table, referencing the need for trust within client and agency relationships when it comes to innovation and digital change. “You don’t want your client feeling as if you’ve given them a new job and another thing to tick off their list because you’ve created a new service through innovation. Understanding the management, implementation and marketing of innovation internally is key to success.”

Picking up on that point, Justine Baynes from SSAFA, the armed forces charity, discussed their issues with conversion. “We have an excellent digital footprint, great assets and we’re well known among our users and target audience. However, we struggle to convert in any meaningful way.”

Amy Vicary, Client Services Director at e3, responded, “The Royal Navy had a similar problem with conversion in their recruitment journey. They had personas with wildly different information needs but a single landing page to explain a job role to all those different people. With our research and strategy, we’ve managed to refine the user experience and improve their conversion rate exponentially.”

Summing up the day, Miranda Glover addressed the room, “sport is an excellent example of how some key brands have been able to achieve innovation and create a real digital change programme within their organisations. We’ve all agreed that innovation for the sake of innovation can start with the best intentions, but without real user insight, strategy and storytelling, most digital change will fail before it starts.”

If you’re interested in any of the topics mentioned in this article, or would like more information please contact Miranda Glover, Business Director here.

Future events in the Keeping Pace with Innovation Series are:

Social Media Frameworks in the Third Sector Driving Innovation: Automotive Switches Up a Gear Embracing Disruption Through Digital Innovation