Can PR convert Rugby World Cup sponsorship?

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Like other global sponsorship opportunities, the Rugby World Cup (RWC), currently taking place in France, has a long list of sponsors each aiming to exploit the millions spent on linking their name to the tournament.  But are sponsors really connecting with the game – and could public relations help convert the tactical spend into a strategic advantage?

Back in 1999 I worked on a project for then RWC sponsor, Ford, interviewing famous rugby players in each of the 5 hosting nations (England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland and France) after relevant matches and uploading their views onto a website.  When I started, I knew little about the sport, but with this expert insight, I soon found myself asking intelligent questions about play to ensure the site reports were more than puff.  Back then, an online strategy was innovative – today if you search for RWC and sponsors, dozens of website initiatives appear – but how many deliver value for money?

According to Performance Research Europe most sponsors back in 1999 relied on stadium signage and only Guinness was recalled consistently by fans as an official partner.  Fans believe sponsorship benefits rugby, and indicate positive feelings towards those brands that support the game.  But it appeared that few understood how to build relationships and failed to make a connection with the fans.

Part of the challenge for sponsors is that evaluating return on investment isn’t easy.  Of course, brands should set clear objectives and assess their success in achieving these.  Does the exposure of stadium signage register with viewers and create any awareness or linkage?  If you can recall a name, does that mean you feel any more favourable towards the brand?  

What about corporate hospitality and tickets used for competitions and other incentives?  Again, a search online reveals plenty of opportunities to win tickets.  But there is increasing resentment from real sport fans about the VIP treatment offered to those who have little genuine interest, but grab the opportunity to say they’ve be hosted by sponsors.  There are also concerns about unofficial brands linking to the RWC – with several teams being fined for logo breaches. 

When there are so many sponsors involved, it can be very difficult to secure media coverage for any particular brand, beyond logo coverage around a stadium which is picked up on television.  The serious sports media aren’t interested in mentioning sponsors in their columns – although you can normally get some attention in your specialist media or use the opportunity to build relationships though media hospitality.  This is something Ford did very well with its Champions League sponsorship, where motoring media would be taken to games.

Where I believe that public relations can help convert sponsorship into strategic advantage is in taking the wider publics perspective.  I asked a friend who has been in France suffering the England group games for his view of who is making the most of their sponsorship.

In terms of the major worldwide partners, rail company, SNCF appeared to be maximising the opportunity.  In particular, branding and staff involvement showed strong support for la coupe du monde de rugby at stations.  A connection to fans was being made with a service assisting the enjoyment of attending the games.

The other company that stood out was Toyota – which interestingly is a sponsor of the French team rather than being involved with the tournament (Peugeot is the major RWC partner).  The campaign, Toyota tous derriere les bleus is apparently everywhere – including a very amusing television advert by Saatchi & Saatchi.  

Neither of these companies is looking outside France in terms of developing real positive connections with fans, however.  So what exactly are the global sponsors doing to justify their mega investment?  Is there a real strategic purpose to the sponsorship? 

It seems to me that if public relations is to add some depth to the marketing activities, it needs to work at the level of understanding the psychology of those who are really passionate about the game.  This means going beyond advertising and corporate hospitality and showing real commitment and enthusiasm. 

If brands don’t seem to care about whatever it is they are sponsoring (and the same will apply to arts or community sponsorships), then although their money will be welcome, they won’t be seen as making an emotional connection.  So the brand won’t be recalled and the real business benefits won’t be realised.  Isn’t that an area where PR can be involved to deliver a strategic advantage?

3 COMMENTS

  1. In case you hadn’t heard, New Zealand plunged into what felt like national mourning on Sunday morning when France knocked us out of the quarter finals (and I won’t mention forward passes, sin bins and the like….). But your post came to mind Heather when I was attempting to deflect the gloom by instead reflecting on any potential shifts in sponsor/All Blacks’ relationships in the coming weeks.

    Air New Zealand has demonstrated the ‘emotional connection’ you speak of – check out http://www.allblackfanatics.com to see one of the many, many activities this sponsor partnership has generated. For the last two years, you haven’t been able to leave an airport without strolling past the boys in black standing poster-guard or appearing in cut-out form round every corner. Elsewhere, RWC sponsor VISA has had its giant ‘countdown’ clock ticking off the minutes to the RWC for at least a year (which may seem a wee bit lame now, but c’est la vie).

    The All Blacks ‘brand’ is huge here, as brands go, but the sponsorship connection isn’t with the brand. It is intertwined with the game itself, along with a seemingly genuine wish on the part of the sponsors for NZ to do well in its favourite national sport and a reflection of the cultural view of ‘ordinary man is the hero’. There are many organisations involved in and around RWC sponsorship here, but of all of them, only Air NZ and Visa seem to be on fast recall with the public (and my quick and unscientific research over the weekend bore this out) because the two organisations have consistently demonstrated their ‘fan’ status, as opposed to ‘sponsor’ status. What will be interesting, now the boys are on their way home, will be the future engagement and consistency of sponsors with this connection as we head towards 2011.

  2. I think Heineken has done an excellent job in New Zealand with maximising its sponsorship of the RWC.
    Their TVCs and other advertising grabs the passion and emotional attachment to the game here and they have built in some very good engaging promotions.
    They have certainly done a lot more in terms of brand awareness and participation than the All Blacks’ beer sponsor Steinlager.

  3. Thanks for sharing the New Zealand perspective. Of course, we’ve been enjoying the defeat of the Aussies this week, particularly after the comments about the world hating England from their camp.

    Despite England surprisingly making it to the semi-finals, I still haven’t noticed a great deal of action around the sport this week. No doubt, if we do beat the French and get to the final, the country will suddenly be full of rugby fans again – so the sponsors might make a bit more noise then.

    I’m keen on an Argentina-England final myself.

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