Until recently, few people outside the motorsports fraternity had heard of Lewis Hamilton. Now, as he leads the Formula One drivers' table, he is a household name. His success is great news for his McLaren team's backers, Santander and Vodafone, but for brands interested in using the driver in the future, he won't come cheap.
Hamilton's rise - from karting to the top flight in just five years - underlines how quickly a sponsorship star can be born. It's no surprise, then, that a growing number of brands are trying to catch similar prospects early. It is already an established tactic for sportswear brands - young British golfer Ollie Fisher is tied in with Nike, while Adidas has deals with footballer Daniel Sturridge and tennis hopeful Laura Robson - but the approach is now being adopted by companies not generally associated with sport. Group4 Securicor and US telecoms firm Vonage, for example, have set up young athlete schemes. Visa has a Team Visa programme, while King of Shaves sponsors a number of 'Young Blades'. Even B&Q has Olympic hopefuls working in its stores in return for the DIY chain's backing.
There are several reasons to get involved with young athletes. Backing them early in their career costs a brand relatively little, and if they hit the big time, it will have saved itself a small fortune compared with firms that spend lavishly on established stars. It's also worth remembering that sportsmen and women are notoriously superstitious; if they get to the top with a given brand, they are often unwilling to change a winning formula.
Vonage is among the brands with strategic reasons for being involved 'It is a young company that arrived in the UK from the US and Canada,' explains Alex Brown, who manages the Team Vonage account at sports marketing agency Fast Track. 'It chose to support five athletes it felt best mirrored its qualities - young and emerging talent with the ability to achieve big things.'
Emerging athlete schemes can also be used to bring meaning to a broader sponsorship strategy. 'Olympic sponsors need to establish a 'reason for being' to promote their association effectively and engage consumers,' says Tom Silk, managing director of Velocity Sports and Entertainment, who works on Team Visa. 'Strategically, Visa's support of athletes gives it the hook that allows it to communicate with multiple stakeholders in a locally relevant manner.' The finance brand and Olympic sponsor, which launched its scheme in 2002, recently unveiled its 16-strong team for the Beijing 2008 and London 2012 Olympics, split evenly between 'hopefuls' and 'apprentices'.
Such initiatives often form part of wider CSR programmes. In June, Group4 Securicor launched its global sponsorship programme 4teen. The scheme, mentored by Ethiopian long-distance runner Haile Gebrselassie, gives assistance to a diverse set of athletes from the company's developing markets.
Targeting young teenagers may seem a long-term investment, but Clifford Bloxham, vice-president of athletes and personalities at Octagon, says brands often see a quick return. 'The gap between a prospect being a promising junior to winning on the world scene is getting shorter as they are getting into professional habits at a younger age.' Last December, Octagon client Robson, then aged 12, won the Eddie Herr tennis tournament, a title held by Maria Sharapova just six years ago.
London 2012 is a major driver of emerging-athlete schemes in the UK, and the media runs regular features on youngsters with a chance of glory on home turf in five years' time. It is no surprise that two of Britain's brightest prospects, distance runner Emily Pidgeon and sprinter Wade Bennett-Jackson, have been courted by consumer brands such as Virgin.
Will Oscroft, director at 141 Worldwide Sports and Entertainment, has noticed a rise in the number of brands interested in deals with emerging stars and expects greater interest as London 2012 nears. …