With the 2015 Rugby World Cup drawing to a close we thought it would be worthwhile to take stock of the third biggest sporting event in the world (according to World Rugby) and assess the success of the rugby sponsors during this tournament. Brett Gosper, Chief Executive of World Rugby, has highlighted that this could be the first billion-dollar world cup, time will tell whether this landmark has been achieved however its safe to conclude that this has been the most profitable edition of the tournament and, from a World Rugby perspective, a massive success. However, in order to understand the commercial value of such a tournament we need to dig under the surface and understand the primary lessons that can be learnt from the brands who have been activating rugby over the last two months.
There are no guarantees in sport sponsorship
One of the biggest challenges facing UK brands activating around this world cup has been the early exit of the host nation. No major tournament ever benefits from the hosts leaving early, especially with the rest of Europe’s best following closely behind England’s early exit. However, the popularity of sport is due to the fact that there are no guarantees, this is why fans watch. It’s the unknowns, the variables and upsets that keep fans fixated. If we didn’t get the giant killing (Japan v South Africa), controversy (Australia v Scotland) or the unexpected package (Argentina) no one would follow. Sport needs this uncertainty and brands should embrace it when deciding to sponsor such an event or team.
Time will reveal the full extent of the financial impact however its likely to reveal that England’s exit had a negative effect. This may well have led to some commercial partners to challenge their strategies which we believe to be an unwise move. Whilst their plans hadn’t been released, brands such as O2 were expected to ramp up their activity as the tournament (and England) progressed, these plans were reportedly dropped.
Whilst fans want their team to succeed, this is not the be all and end all for most and we have noticed an interesting trend amongst the clients we have been working with during the tournament. The moment England were knocked out interest seemed to fall off a cliff. This seemed to mark the beginning of a period of national mourning, however within a week interest picked up massively once again. It was as though fans snapped out of their despair and realised that there was still a world class rugby tournament being played on their doorstep which they now wanted to continue following. Whilst its probably fair to assume that the Rugby Flirts weren’t part of this group, the Die-Hard Fans and Big Eventers will now be enjoying the final days of what has turned out to be a phenomenal world cup. This presents a massive opportunity which brands often miss, in our opinion.
Rather than dropping off the scale altogether and making marketing budget savings, sponsoring brands should be activating throughout the tournament irrespective of results. This isn’t to say they shouldn’t be reactive to what is happening on the pitch however create plans with flexibility to demonstrate to fans a true understanding and connection with the sport. If, genuinely, there is a justification for reducing activation due to a particular team’s performance then the whole strategy should be challenged. Reducing activation reveals to the consumer a very shallow and insubstantial relationship.
Longevity is the key to success
Brands should be taking a very long term approach to their association and the subsequent results. There will be ups and downs, however when evaluating a sponsorship, it should be assessed over the entirety of the contract rather than individual results.
Fans/consumers are savvy to the world of sponsorship. They learn to accept that brands enter into the territory they love however they will not be welcomed in their consideration set until the sponsor has demonstrated their understanding and value adding role into this relationship. Brands who enter the territory with the sole expectation of tactically exploiting the commercial opportunity of a major tournament will fail as they have no history, heritage or credibility. However, brands with longevity will capitalise over a long period (if their strategy is right), therefore whilst I’m sure the likes of Heineken are disappointed with England’s early exit they need (and I’m sure they will) put this into context of the decades of financial and emotional investment they have placed within the sport.
The brand who has delivered some of the most engaging and compelling activation during this World Cup is Samsung. Their films of Jack Whitehall, Lawrence Dallaglio and Martin Johnson have, to date, attracted over 1.7 million you tube hits and are drawing acclaim from industry experts and fans alike. Samsung joined the RFU family of partners in 2014 however haven’t generated any traction during their first year of sponsorship, whereas this campaign has firmly put them on the map. I imagine that their sponsorship awareness figure will have shot through the roof, their challenge now will be to build on this base and drive genuine engagement off the back of this initial success. It will be interesting to see, come the Six Nations and beyond, if they continue with this level of activation investment to become a genuinely valued rugby brand. If not, the good work they have achieved over the last couple of months will all be to nothing.
It’s a long tournament – don’t let activation become wallpaper
Due to the nature of the sport, the Rugby World Cup is always an incredibly long tournament, far longer than any Olympics or Football World Cup. It has felt like most of the brands have blown themselves out of ideas since the beginning of the tournament. MasterCard, for example, failed to change the creative on their Waterloo digital panels for the two weeks after the start of the tournament, this resulted in showcasing a fan’s tweet expressing their anticipation and excitement for the opening match well into the pool stages. This not only exposed creative naivety but also demonstrated a serious lack of understanding of the sport.
Given the length of this tournament we were very surprised at how early many of the brands started their communications over the summer months. There was plenty of time to drip feed the creative messages over the 6-week tournament. Most of the brand’s activation are now in desperate need of a re-fresh. We are leading up to the biggest game of rugby over the last four years and no one seems to be saying anything new. This feels like a missed opportunity.
In conclusion, this has been a successful edition of the Rugby World Cup however we will never know what the impact would have been if England had stayed in it longer. However, there are lessons to be learnt from a tournament sponsorship perspective which brands should remember when planning for the Japan 2019. Creating a strategy robust enough to withstand any eventuality on the pitch, demonstrating the brand’s long term credibility and generating evolving and engaging activations throughout the tournament are key to sponsor success.