Dark Horses’ Dan Cunningham on tackling Covid-19 challenges, Football Beyond Walls campaign and launching Home Run

Sports Creative Agency Dark Horses with clients like Peloton, Nissan, Panini, LTA among others, recently worked with the charity Football Beyond Borders to drive conversation around mental health. The Playknox spoke with Dan Cunningham, Head of New Business for Dark Horses to know more about the campaign, tackling Covid-19 challenges, launching their own product among other things. Excerpts: 


What has been the impact of Covid19 on your business? How are you planning to overcome these challenges?

We’re in the business of sport and culture, so we were one of the first to experience the scale of the pandemic’s impact, but that also gave us a head start in responding to it. We knew it was a matter of when and in what form sport would return, so the focus became planning for different eventualities with our clients. As an industry we’re going to be adapting to new regulations for some time, which will create fundamental changes in how we operate. But looking ahead, the outlook is a positive one. We’ve seen a shift of major sporting events – such as the Euros and the Olympics – from this year into 2021, meaning there is going to be a lot of activity to lift our industry alongside opportunities to reinvent itself in the wake of the pandemic.


With matches taking place behind closed doors, what are the marketing activities clubs/sporting organisations can still do for fan engagement?

The current crisis certainly provides greater opportunity for innovation, and the more restrictions we face with it, the greater the role for problem-solving creativity. Fan behaviour is usually so ingrained and can also be repetitive but in 2020 we’ve seen new rituals being formed.

With that, brands now have a real chance to help co-create fan culture, not just piggyback on it. While at the same time, rights holders are being more flexible than ever with their partners, which is a combination we believe will lead to some really unique opportunities. Bringing that live experience into the living room or onto a mobile phone will be a core objective for many brands in sport as long as games continue to be played behind closed doors.


Dark Horses launched their own sports nutrition product – Home Run


How important do you think branding/ creativity is in the time of Covid-19?

Creativity offers a competitive advantage. We’re unequivocal about that and were built on a belief in the power of creative ideas. Hard times like these can traditionally engender a creative entropy but actually, now more so than ever, we’ve all seen that creativity is the differentiator.


We have seen the rise of fitness brands amidst the pandemic. Is that the way forward? What do brands need to focus on to survive and thrive in this pandemic era?

A Runrepeat survey at the end of March showed that running participation had increased 117%. It wasn’t just running. Bike sales are reportedly up over 50% on last year. And Google searches related to exercise increased 170% in the UK online (albeit in the peak period between 8th to 28th March this year, but has equally continued to stay high). What this shows is that the pandemic not only presented a fundamental shift in the importance of exercise in people’s lives, but more importantly, it changed motivations towards exercise – driven primarily by improved physical and mental health benefits, in place of the previous goal-based motivators like appearance or performance.

During lockdown, we published a report called the Future of Fitness offering advice for brands on how to help nurture and maintain this new desire for exercise. A lot of this thinking still holds true, one view in particular being the opportunity to build a connected community. We noted that whilst at its core fitness is a personal journey, it’s also positively linked to a sense of belonging to a wider community. And the normalisation of technology we’ve experienced is one of the few things we can confidently say will stick with us (we seldom do regress when it comes to tech) which will lead to massive opportunities for brands and organisations alike to bring communities together in ways we’ve not seen before.


Tell us about some of your recent and upcoming projects.

I mentioned earlier about brands pivoting businesses during lockdown and creativity being the driving force behind it, which is thinking that has come from our own experience. Obviously issues with production were one of the biggest drawbacks to getting things made over lockdown but we managed to put out a number of campaigns that showed a level of thinking and craft which allowed us to make films that didn’t look like they had been created in lockdown. One of those was with Football Beyond Borders (FBB), a charity which uses football to support disadvantaged young people in the UK.

Teens became the forgotten age group during lockdown, finding themselves unable to open up and talk about their issues. We worked with FBB and created Football Beyond Walls, a campaign that used games of FIFA to allow teens to open up about the pressures they were facing. Our concern from a production perspective was creating the environment without actually being there to direct it. But working alongside great partners, the whole process felt like nothing was different. And what came out of it was a thought provoking and effective piece of work with exceptionally high production values.

Then in July, we launched our own sports nutrition product, Home Run. This was a product created specifically with office workers in mind to fuel their after-work workouts after seeing with our own staff that the usual afternoon snacking choices were not offering the most efficient fuel for working out after work. This was an initiative planned way before the lockdown, so we had to adapt to a lot challenges this forced on us such as Amazon de-prioritising a lot of new stock to focus on Covid-related essentials. Now live, we also launched a campaign to promote it called the Home Run Commuter Routers. It’s an initiative aimed at pairing commuters who don’t wish to use public transport post-Covid with ‘a Home Run buddy’ who will work out their best cycle, run or walk commute in and out of work, and run/ ride with them (at a safe distance) to
their destination.

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