It has been an astonishing few weeks for English cricket. At Headingly, Ben Stokes played an innings of such skill and determination that it was almost immediately christened the “greatest ever by an Englishman”. Jack Leach cemented hero status with a stoic innings gaining instant cult status thanks in no small part to his continued polishing of his glasses between balls. It was another incredible moment for cricket in a summer that has been full of them.
For a title sponsor like Specsavers, a moment like this is a dream. A nation gripped. Highlights watched again and again. Brand front and centre. But thanks to the actions of Ben Stokes off the pitch, this was a dream that only got better. After the game, in homage to his bespectacled batting partner, Ben Stokes tweeted:
Talk about success falling into your lap. Specsavers didn’t even have to come up with a reactive strategy, England’s hero did it for them. Posting about the brand and its products just hours after his match-winning heroics. Yes, they paid a premium for a title sponsorship. But so do lots of brands who never get this kind of engagement, let alone the biggest star moments after a defining innings. Yes, it was incredibly fortunate that one of the key actors in this sporting drama spent the key moments polishing his glasses. But to put this success down to a joyous fluke, is to miss the point.
This wasn’t an isolated incident. This was the deserved reward for a brand that has established a sponsorship narrative as well as any other (more on this later). It was also a moment that illustrates fundamental changes in the athlete-brand relationship. This was far from an unrepeatable fluke. This was a moment that all sponsors can learn from.
While Stokes’ tweet certainly looks like a natural response, it is impossible to ignore the fact Stokes is one of cricket’s most commercially active stars. Despite his previous arrest for affray, partnerships with Red Bull and Gunn & Moore are some of the most visible in the sport and will surely be joined by more deals on the back of his Ashes heroics.
He is part of a generation of athletes that are incredibly commercially savvy. But that commercial awareness is not just in the traditional sense of brand ambassadors and kit sponsorships. Stokes and his peers have been raised in the social media era and are just as comfortable with the idea of brands reacting on social media as something as fundamental as a branded photo op. A great example is the way athletes now organically engage with the EA Sports FIFA and Madden franchises in the weeks after their release, questioning their virtual attributes. Here’s an example from earlier this month:
The current generation of athletes have been raised on engaging with brands on social media and expecting brands’ responses to go viral. It’s no surprise that Stokes was primed to get Specsavers involved, straight after his Headingly heroics.
Specsavers being the brand in a position to benefit wasn’t just about their title sponsorship, or the fact that Jack Leach made glasses part of Sunday’s story (although both of course helped). Over the past few years they’ve built a compelling brand and sponsorship story that has put them in a position to succeed. They’ve reacted with smart executions when individuals in the world of sport ‘should have gone to Specsavers’, including a great piece around the mixing up of the two Korea’s at the 2012 Olympics. They have chosen the right sponsorships to allow them to tell their story, not just opting for the properties that promise the most eyeballs. This includes smartly building upon the classic trope of fans questioning referee/umpire decisions, by focusing their inventory on the officials. This umpiring game created in partnership with the Telegraph was a great example. Even just their tagline for their Ashes branding – ‘The Test Experts’ – is a smart articulation.
Without all this work building a compelling sponsorship narrative, Specsavers may have just faded into wallpaper, as many title sponsors sadly do. Even if a great story like Jack Leach happened, if Specsavers wasn’t such a distinctive voice in the world of cricket it’s very likely that Ben Stokes would never have thought to organically engage them.
It’s a good lesson for any sponsor. Activity that establishes a sponsorship narrative doesn’t always produce immediate and telling results. Sometimes it does, but sometimes it’s just about planting your flag. Then, if your brand sticks to its story and continues to nurture it with smart engaging content that fits the narrative they’ve built, that story begins to infect everyone, right down to the players.
Just like Stokes’ match winning innings, Specsavers put in the work early, and now they are certainly reaping the rewards, as the ball sails over the boundary.