We were dismayed to view the blatant disregard of one of the RFU’s sponsors during the post-match celebrations of the England rugby team last weekend. In this blog we aim to highlight the issues surrounding this under-delivery in order to make sponsorship more accountable and, in turn, more effective. Its worth highlighting at his point, we don’t have any issue with the RFU or loyalty to the sponsor, however when we see mediocrity in the industry we believe it needs addressing.
After beating Australia, cameras were let into the England changing room where the players were celebrating the win and their unbeaten year. This fully sanctioned footage was broadcast by the RFU’s official television partner, Sky, and on their You Tube channel, so there is no ambiguity around whether it was official or not. What frustrated us was how they were celebrating; they were all drinking lager from bottles with the labels removed. Given that Guinness is the RFU’s official beer partner, one would assume that their product, not lager, should be appearing in these shots.
Modern professional rugby union breeds players that are more likely to be found drinking protein shakes in ice baths rather gallons of beer, which was synonymous with the amateur era. These highly tuned professional athletes closely monitor everything that goes into their bodies to ensure that they remain at the top of their very abrasive sport. As a result, alcohol brands are finding it increasingly difficult to create a credible role for themselves within the sport, the synergies aren’t as obvious as they once were. One role for brands activating in this space is to be the catalyst of great fan experiences; however, this is a well-trodden path and very difficult to own. Therefore, brands have to work harder in this territory to achieve credibility and cut through.
One area where there is a clear role and activation potential for these brands is to be central to the celebration moment. This communicates that when these athletes do have the opportunity to let their hair down they celebrate with the sponsor’s product, this is where real value lies for the associated brands. Last Saturday in the England changing room the opportunity was missed to exploit this position. This wasn’t an oversight on the RFU’s behalf as they had the wherewithal to remove the labels from the lager bottles to ensure they weren’t breaching any competitor exposure clauses with Guinness. However, they didn’t go a step further and ensure the Guinness was flowing throughout these celebrations.
Its worth noting at this stage that it was clear that each player was still wearing Canterbury branded kit, there were large O2 logos plastered on the walls, bottles of Bollinger were being opened, each locker contained Dove skincare products and the player suits were clearly supplied by Eden Park. So why were Guinness being ignored?
When an England team, still wearing their England kit, invite cameras into their changing room for the celebration moment, they should all be commercially on message. In these days of social media their brand choices should also be dictated until the captain/coach calls an embargo on camera phones. England’s rugby players may not all choose to drink a Guinness after a match, but Chris Robshaw may also prefer Sure deodorant and Ben Youngs might choose to wear a Nike base layer, however this would be irrelevant because the RFU should be protecting its partners’ rights within their controlled environment. International rugby players now earn lot of money and must therefore accept that, for the relatively short amount of time that cameras are present, they must respect their sponsors, deliver value for them and fully understand why they are prepared to continue writing the big cheques.
Can you imagine Nico Rosberg celebrating at the top of an F1 Grand Prix podium with an unbranded bottle of sparkling wine belonging to a competitor of Mumm? It simply wouldn’t happen. Rugby Union has been a professional sport for over 20 years, on this occasion it felt like we were back in the amateur era.
As rights fees ever increase and brands continue to try and carve out credible activation positions, potential exposure generated by these celebratory moments is vital for an alcohol sponsor. Rights holders can’t expect brands to tolerate this level of under-performance and continue paying high rights fees. Unlike the England team, the RFU dropped the ball last weekend and I sincerely hope Diageo are currently making their displeasure known to their rights holder in no uncertain terms.