Brands are queuing up to associate with the Olympics and Euros this year. But the sponsorship game has changed – and strategic partnerships, social media activity and digital activations are winning

Food and drink lies at the very origin of sports sponsorship. The first recorded brand deal was signed by food manufacturer Oxo in 1908, during the first Olympic Games to be held in London, There, marathon runners were handed branded Oxo drinks to fortify them through the event.

By the 1920s, as the advent of radio broadcasting took sports coverage into millions of homes, more and more companies caught on to the opportunity.

When Coca-Cola – currently the Olympics’ longest-standing partner – signed on in 1928, a freighter carrying the US team and 1,000 cases of the soft drink pulled into Amsterdam.

In the 1970s and 1980s, brands like McDonald’s began leveraging the growing stardom of individual athletes in marketing campaigns. By the early 2000s, deals had grown more sophisticated, with product placement in stadiums and the creation of interactive fan zones backed by brands.

Fast-forward to the 2010s and the emergence of social media, influencers and e-sports began providing new avenues for brands to explore and optimise investment.

As fans ready themselves for a mega summer of sports in Europe, with Germany hosting the Euros in June and the Olympic Games returning to Paris for the first time in 100 years in July, the landscape has shifted again. So in what ways has the now multibillion-pound sports sponsorship industry evolved?

‘No-brainer’ opportunity

What hasn’t changed is the value that sports can offer brands, says Dan Moseley, managing director at advertising platform Automated Creative. If anything, it’s more important than ever: some five billion football fans are set to tune into this year’s Euros matches live.

“Sport remains one of relatively few ‘appointment to view’ experiences for consumers – both on and offline – and that’s significant in the context of increasingly fragmented media consumption habits,” says Moseley. “The big sporting moments offer a unique opportunity for brands to be visible and relevant, which should make them a no-brainer for any grocery brand that wants to be in contention.”

That’s echoed by Chris Barron, general manager for personal care in the UK & Ireland and VP for deodorants in Europe at Unilever. The fmcg giant announced its own multi-brand partnership with the Euros earlier this year  – which Barron believes will offer numerous benefits to tapping into sports.

“Short-term, sports partnerships give brands opportunities to drive brand reach, get creative with limited-editions, in-store activations and ‘money can’t buy’ prizes, ultimately driving engagement and conversion with current and new shoppers,” he says.


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Longer term, they can help grow categories and create “huge talkability” around brands, Barron adds. They can even ensure a particular brand becomes synonymous with a particular athlete or sport and “the shared moments they create”, he believes.

But as the scale and value of sports sponsorship has skyrocketed – worth upwards of $66bn globally as of 2022, according to Statista – brand marketing teams within fmcg have taken a far more strategic approach.

In short, if at one time they’d settle for a one-inch logo on a football strip or a cursory mention in the opening credits of a tournament, the modern landscape is a whole new ball game.


Source: Lidl

Lidl is encouraging customers to sign up to Lidl Plus by shoppers chances to win Euro 2024 trips

Lidl targets sign-ups with giveaway

In addition to its Lidl Kids Team promotion at this summer’s Euros, the discounter is encouraging customers to sign up to its Lidl Plus membership scheme –and accompanying app – by offering Lidl Plus shoppers chances to win all-expenses-paid Euro 2024 trips.

The giveaway will see 22 such prizes up for grabs, including two tickets to a match, return flights, two nights’ accommodation, catering for the duration of the trip, and even return transfers from hotel to stadium. The competition kicked off on 18 April and runs to 8 May, exclusively on the Lidl Plus app.

From sponsorship to partnership

One major shift has been from simple sponsorship to strategic partnership, says Michelle Du-Prât, CSO and co-founder at creative agency Household.

“As sports evolve, so does the nature of sponsorship,” she says. “Grocery brands are learning from other sectors to get more dynamically involved in sport and switching into partnership and funding mode, not just advertising and promotion.” The result is more complex, strategic deals that combine multiple elements, rather than an advert in a stadium.

In some cases, this could be ensuring credible brand endorsement. See Biotiful Gut Health, which recently added Gloucester Rugby to its list of sports partnerships. All of its partners – which also include Premier League football club Wolverhampton Wanderers and British Gymnastics – are users of its functional range.

“Our sports partnerships are exactly that – partnerships,” says chief marketing officer Vince Lawson. “This is not advertising, or sponsorship.”

Five big brand partnerships rolling out this summer


Source: Aldi

Helen Glover and Max Whitlock

Aldi UK

In March, Aldi UK announced the extension of its partnership with Team GB all the way to the Brisbane Olympic Games in 2032. Though the retailer is yet to unveil all of its plans, it’s already promoted exclusive ticket giveaways, roped its staff into joining the #MovewithTeamGB dance challenge on its TikTok channel, and announced plans to reach one million young people this year via its ‘Get Set to Eat Fresh’ programme.


Source: Old El Paso

Old El Paso

Old El Paso kicked off its own partnership with Team GB in April ahead of the Paris Olympics. The ‘Make Some Noise for your Home Team’ campaign includes VIP ticket giveaways, on-pack promotions and a “multimillion-pound investment in media” featuring the brand’s ‘Home Team Heroes’. They include double Olympic swimming champion Tom Dean and Bethany Shriever, BMX Olympic gold medal winner in Tokyo.


Source: Lidl


As an official partner of the Euro 2024 tournament in Germany this summer, Lidl is set to drive engagement via dedicated fan zones, ticket giveaways and the rollout of its ‘Lidl Kids Team’. In the latter activation, children will be given the chance to act as official player mascots during the tournament, along with flights, accommodation and a “jam-packed itinerary”. Competition entry will be available exclusively via the Lidl Plus app.

Grealish x Hellmanns

Source: Hellmann’s

Jack Grealish partnered with Hellmann’s


In late 2023, Unilever announced its multi-brand partnership with the Euros, spanning names across its personal care and food portfolio. Hellmann’s has been named the tournament’s ‘Official BBQ partner’ – prompting the rollout of limited-edition bottles and an £8m ‘Up your BBQ’ campaign starring major football stars such as Jack Grealish. That comes alongside activity spanning TV, out-of-home billboards, in-store displays, and socials.




Source: Whole Earth

Whole Earth

Building on its participation at the 2020 Tokyo Games, peanut butter brand Whole Earth is set to renew its partnership with Team GB this summer. The £3m campaign – its biggest all-year-round marketing campaign to date – will include advertising, in-store marketing, PR, experiential and social media, designed to “support Team GB’s athletes in their preparation” and “showcase the goodness of peanut butter”.

That athletes subscribe to the product themselves means the brand can “tell consumers that some of the world’s leading sports clubs and athletes have chosen to incorporate Biotiful kefir into their nutrition regimes”, he points out.

In other cases, the deal might focus more on exclusive access. As part of its partnership with the Euros this year, for example, Lidl GB launched its ‘Lidl Kids Team’ in March – a campaign that gives young shoppers the chance to become official player escorts during the tournament.

“It’s not just about the big game. It’s new sports, watch parties, live streaming, places where people are”

Michelle Du-Prât, Household

Demand for partnerships also applies when signing up individual athletes as brand ambassadors, adds Mark Middlemas, CEO and founder of The Athlete Media Group. “Brands are more holistic and integrated in their approach so as to maximise the value they receive from athlete partnerships,” he says.

“Just badging an athlete is no longer enough for either party. We are seeing signs of more purpose-led partnerships where commercials and purpose combine to tell a stronger story for the brand and athlete.”

For much the same reason, the emphasis is also now on long-term, multiyear deals that allow a brand to build association with a particular sport or event over time, rather than one-off splashy sponsorships.

“Longer-term deals ensure that brands can fully develop these campaigns and extend their relevance,” says Melissa Minkow, director of retail strategy at CI&T. “Bigger-picture visions facilitate brand consistency and provide a better opportunity for recall among consumers.”

Aldi UK’s recent decision to extend its partnership with Team GB through to 2032, for example, is “all about our shared, core values”, says its marketing director Kyrsten Halley. The discounter has bold ambitions to “inspire even more young people to adopt healthy eating habits and make healthier lifestyle choices” as part of the collaboration.

“We’ve [also] seen a rise in big conglomerates partnering in sport to elevate multiple products and not just focus on one in particular,” adds Chris Wilson, managing partner for brand partnerships at Ingenuity.

That’s the case at Unilever, which will highlight its Sure, Dove, Men+Care and Radox personal care brands during the Euros in June, while Hellmann’s will be the tournament’s official barbecue partner.

‘The changing fans’

Brands aren’t just changing the terms and conditions of deals, though. They’re also making big changes to their execution – most notably to adapt to the huge shift in consumption habits across sports fans.

Ten years ago, 56% of fans would only choose to watch a match at home or in the pub, found 2023 research by Snapchat. Now, almost a third (29%) also turn to social media and messaging apps to watch, discuss and dissect major sporting moments. And the majority (71%) feel the online interaction before and after the main event is just as important.

“Longer-term deals ensure brands can fully develop campaigns and extend their relevance”

Melissa Minkow, CI&T

Social media has also elevated the influence of individual athletes. Nearly half (46%) of Gen Z fans say they’ve watched a live sports event on TV because they follow one of the athletes online, according to a Deloitte survey, and another 33% have bought a ticket to an event in the hope of spotting the star.

“The big change is coming from the changing fans, and how they’re engaging with sport in new ways – both playing and watching,” says Du-Prât. “It’s not just about the big game. It’s new sports, watch parties, live streaming… places where people are – schools, communities and sports academies.”

To adapt, grocery brands are orientating strategies around multiple channels and platforms, both before, during and after major sporting events, says Tom McGovern, director of client services at Buddy Media – “whether that’s trying to attract sign-ups to online apps or loyalty schemes, or utilising VR and online experiences to connect with consumers in their own homes”.

“Tech is also used to create personalised experiences for consumers,” he says. “Notably, football stadiums now display different digital touchline ads based on where you’re watching.”

Old El Paso, for example, has leveraged paid digital, social media and influencers, as well as in-store and on-pack promotions for its backing of the NFL in the US and of Team GB. “With new and varied social media platforms and an increase in second-screen usage, there are more opportunities for brands to add value and access fans than ever before,” explains head of meals Aditi Hilgers.

Then there’s mineral water brand Aqua Pura, the hydration partner of the AJ Bell Great Run series. It has mobilised its ambassador, triathlete Jess Learmonth, in a multichannel competition to win one-on-one running coaching from the gold medal winner. Fitness and hydration advice are also shared by Learmonth on blogs, vlogs, social posts and via e-marketing “to really bring the partnership to life and bring added value and genuinely organic content”, says the brand’s head of marketing Terri Cooper.

Meanwhile, the availability of AI across digital platforms is serving to “turbo-boost” engagement, says Paul Briggs, SVP for Europe at video ad company Silverpush, by ensuring the ad content is targeted at precisely the right audience.

“Brands are more holistic and integrated in their approach. Just badging an athlete is no longer enough for either party”

Mark Middlemas, The Athlete Media Group

Its own Mirrors AI tech, for example, scans YouTube videos to identify specific visual cues such as face, emotions, logos, objects, scenes and places. “Once these pre-defined visual contexts are recognised, Mirrors inserts targeted video ads along with companion banners and calls-to-action at opportune moments within the video content,” he adds. “So, a fan who has just watched Josh Kerr sprint towards the finish line during the Olympics will then see an Olympics-themed ad from Whole Earth.”

“The integration of technology has been a game-changer in sports partnerships,” agrees Pedro Avery, co-founder of independent media agency Bicycle. “Augmented reality (AR), real-time data analytics, and personalised digital marketing have become standard tools for engaging fans during live events.”

Sport GettyImages-1443384566

Source: Getty Images

AI could refine marketing messages and craft targeted fan experiences based on their online data

How AI could change sports sponsorship

In the hunt for lucrative marketing opportunities, AI could help generate greater revenues than ever before. “In the sponsorship realm, AI is a game-changer,” said software developers Globant in a recent study.

It predicted the new technology would enable sponsors to extract even greater value from sponsorships, thanks to AI’s ability to refine marketing messages and craft targeted fan experiences based on their online data.

According to Hans Westerbeek, a professor of international sport business at Victoria University, Melbourne, one possible use of AI could involve using it to analyse data such as fan demographics, interests, and spending habits, to find the most suitable events and players to sponsor. Another option is using AI to identify emerging athletes for potential sponsorship partnerships.

The Los Angeles Olympics in 2028 will likely be the key event that showcases AI’s role in sports sponsorship for the first time, suggests Conrad Wiacek at GlobalData.

This is largely because while “the World Cup or the Euros are a bit stuck in their ways and not as open to innovation”, the Los Angeles Olympics should offer interested brands the ability to focus on new ways of generating maximum sponsorship revenue, largely thanks to its decision to save time and money by using existing stadiums for the event.

The demand for authenticity

Successful engagement goes beyond the latest tech, of course. That brings us to the third big change in sports partnerships in 2024: a growing demand for both authenticity and purpose.

“Fans expect the best experience but, also, they admire brands who give back to society,” says Wilson. “Purpose and CSR initiatives are highly valued, so leaving a legacy or supporting the community or being seen to support grassroots sport are benefits in today’s typical sports partnership. It creates good content and it also creates different ways to engage fans, allowing more of a connection between brand and fans as they enjoy their much-loved sport together.”

This “important element” feeds into the longevity of a successful partnership, argues Unilever’s Barron. Outside of major matches and tournaments, the Unilever deodorant teams work with professional athletes via its Breaking Limits programme, he explains. This initiative partners with non-profit organisations to give young people access to sports and physical activity and is estimated to reach as many as 25,000 young people this year alone.

“Leaving a legacy or supporting grassroots sports are benefits in today’s partnerships”

Chris Wilson, Ingenuity

Aldi’s ‘Get Set to Eat Fresh’ healthy eating programme, launched as part of its support for Team GB, is another example of a shift to partnerships that give back. The nationwide education programme is designed to help young people develop the skills required to cook healthy meals on a budget and aims to reach one million children by the end of 2024.

In this way, “the evolution of sports partnerships among UK grocery brands underscores a broader industry shift towards more interactive and meaningful marketing practices”, sums up Avery.

It’s clear that sports sponsorship has come a long way since a few thousand watched marathon runners slurp on Oxo drinks on the streets of London more than a century ago. Bigger, bolder and far more ambitious – with eye-watering investments to boot – it’s no longer simply the taking part that counts.

For more on fmcg and sports, watch our Grocer Vision webinar ’How can grocery win big during the summer of sport in 2024 and beyond?


Source: Alamy

Dutch brewer Bavaria sent 36 women wearing its signature orange into a match

Taking action against ‘ambush marketing’

As some three billion pairs of eyes turn to Paris’s Trocadéro Plaza on 26 July for the opening ceremony of the 2024 Olympic Games, it won’t only be the 10,000 athletes arriving via boat on the River Seine that will be hoping for their moment in the spotlight.

More than £1bn is expected to be spent by brands at the Games this year – and fmcg giants like Coca-Cola, P&G, Corona and Danone are among those that reportedly paid eye-watering sums to be named official brand partners.

To protect this highly prized status, organisers are set to clamp down on any so-called ‘ambush marketing’ during the event, i.e. brands looking to bask in the reflected glory of major sporting moments without paying for the privilege.

One of the most famous such stunts took place during the 2010 World Cup. Though Budweiser was the official beer of the tournament, Dutch brewer Bavaria sent 36 women wearing its signature orange into the match.

The women were promptly thrown out of the stadium, but it led to legal action by the international governing body (which was later settled).

To avoid such incidents this year, the International Olympic Committee has registered multiple trademarks for a wide range of goods and services that may use its name, logo or even mascots.

It’s also enforcing Rule 40, a bylaw of the Olympic Charter that restricts relationships between individual athletes and non-official sponsors throughout the event. Often seen as controversial – with companies even restricted from retweeting content from the official Olympics X (formerly Twitter) account in 2016 – the rules were amended in 2020 to allow sponsors and athletes to thank and congratulate one another. However, even this is restricted to seven statements or posts.