Pride in the Rose: O2’s sponsorship chief on 20 years supporting England Rugby

6 February 2015 | Posted in Quick-Fire Questions | By Mike Kennedy | Contact the author

Pride in the Rose: O2’s sponsorship chief on 20 years supporting England Rugby

O2 is marking its 20th year as a partner of England Rugby in 2015. With the Six Nations soon to start and England hosting the Rugby World Cup in September and October, SportsPro caught up with Gareth Griffiths, the company's head of sports sponsorship, to hear about O2’s activation plans for their big year ahead.

SportsPro: What are your marketing and sponsorship plans for 2015?

Well it’s a huge year for us. We’ve been waiting for ages for 2015 to be honest. There’s a Rugby World Cup on the horizon so for us that’s a once in a generation opportunity both from a brand perspective, from an O2 perspective, and also from a sponsorship level as well.

I mean, this is our 20th year now as partner of England Rugby and it’s a long standing and very successful sponsorship and we’re really excited about launching this new positioning, ‘Wear the Rose’, and then rolling that out. We’ve got big plans not only for the Six Nations, where we’ll be in force, bigger and better than ever, but right through April, May, June, July into the QBE [autumn internationals] in August and then obviously the tournament in September. So it’s something we’ve been working on for a long time, over a year actually. Because it’s one of the big things for O2 as a brand in 2015, it brings that sponsorship up to a whole new level for this year which we are really excited about. And in the centre of all that is our new positioning, which is ‘Wear the Rose’.

With 2015 being a World Cup year, are your plans bigger and bolder than they have been in what would have been a normal Six Nations year?

Yes, and rugby is a big sport anyway. It’s in the top three sports in the country as it stands and for this year, with a host nations’ tournament, everybody from the RFU to our media guys to the host broadcaster ITV; everybody’s taking an interest. If there’s ten million rugby fans now, that will double at least. So for us as a massive consumer brand, as well as the core rugby fans that we always talk to via sponsorship, that 11-20 million is really interesting as there’s a massive consumer piece there.

There’s nothing else around either. There is no Olympics or Fifa World Cup this summer; it’s literally a clear run right through to the tournament in September. So it’s a huge opportunity for us and one that we’re equally really excited about. We’re hugely passionate about our England Rugby sponsorship, so to get the chance to do this in a World Cup year is really exciting for us.

England kick-off the Six Nations later on Friday. What activities have you been doing ahead of the tournament?

Last Friday, 30th January, we launched the ‘Wear the Rose’ campaign properly and it’s fairly simple: it’s about getting the England rugby shirt on when England play. We want the England team to feel the real power of support. It’s based on that. If England perform better then our sponsorship performs better. So it’s based on those real simple insights, and the fact that the England coach, Stuart Lancaster, has told us the crowd support is one of the most important things for him this year. Getting the country behind the team is massively important. And as the lead partner and being the size of the business and having the reach that we have, that’s something we can really help with.

"It’s our logo on that shirt and we take that responsibility really seriously. The sponsorship with the RFU, it deserves nothing less, particularly in a World Cup year."

With reference to us a real key moment for Stuart was recently, when England were hoping to win the Grand Slam in 2013 and they went down to Cardiff to play Wales. He said that night he really felt that the three million people were right behind the Welsh team; they felt like they were playing the whole nation. The atmosphere in the stadium, the feeling they got when they went into the city; everyone was so massively behind Wales and he came away thinking, ‘this is really important for us going into a World Cup year, a host nation tournament. We’ve got to get the country right behind England and show the power that support can have.’ It can have a direct effect on performance. If the players feel like they’re getting more support they’re going to try harder and hopefully perform better and that’s what it’s based on. We just want people wearing the England Rugby shirt.

With so many sponsors vying for attention during the Six Nations, is this campaign one of the main ways you’re hoping to stand out?

There’s a whole brand positioning campaign. We won’t be on TV for the Six Nations but certainly towards the World Cup I’m sure we’ll be on TV. But print, video on demand, digital, social is really important to us. We’re very respectful of our fellow partners with the RFU. We’ve got great working relationships with them all, but we never really look around for inspiration. We’re very focussed on doing ours. It’s our logo on that shirt and we take that responsibility really seriously. The sponsorship with the RFU, it deserves nothing less, particularly, like I keep saying, in a World Cup year. It’s a huge chance for us.

It’s the most important year of our 20-year sponsorship I’d say. With the Six Nations of course there will be a lot of noise. There’s the sponsor of the tournament, the RFU have got a long list of partners they work with, there’s Canterbury the kit supplier that we work really closely with. But we’re never really looking over our shoulder; we let them worry about us rather than the other way around. And that’s meant in the best way. We’re very respectful of everybody else. I think we’re in a very unique position because, as I say, we are the logo on the shirt and the access and what we can do with England rugby is second to none. We have access to the team and the management directly so that enables us to create some very exclusive campaigns and advertisements and social media content that people generally can’t get anywhere else because they haven’t got our access.

Could you go into a little bit about what you do with Canterbury on behalf of the England team?

For example ‘Priority’, which is our customer loyalty programme. So if you’re an O2 loyalty customer you can get a discount on Canterbury kit, off the England shirt, with ‘Priority’. We also just make sure that when they’ve got big stuff on we support them and vice versa. We’ve got a really good relationship with Canterbury and they’re a very pro-active brand. They’ve got a very similar outlook on activation sponsorships as us. They’re great fun. There are very similar brand values between the way we run our sponsors to what they do so they’re a great brand to work with. We’ve been really pleased working with them since they came on board in 2012. And they are rugby through and through as well. So we’ve always got that in common.

In what ways has O2’s association with rugby developed and evolved over the past 20 years?

Well it’s changed massively I think. It was originally BT Cellnet on the shirt and obviously O2 was born out of BT Cellnet 12 years ago. When O2 continued that sponsorship it was all about the brand awareness of getting that new brand out there and the shirt was perfect for that. And it’s evolved now into more of a brand continuation piece. Awareness is still really important, I never want to downplay that, that’s still really important. But I think if you take the case in point of the last Rugby World Cup campaign and this one; in 2011 our campaign was called ‘Get Up For England’ and it was about getting up to watch England play, because they were in New Zealand and matches were taking place at seven or eight o’clock in the morning UK-time, and we gave customers a free pie and a pint delivered to their door to do just that.

"We don’t sell O2 tariffs on texts and minutes; now it’s all about bundles and data and that’s reflected in the way we activate stuff as well."

Well that’s now evolved in 2015 to ‘Wear the Rose’, which is very digitally led. So, for example, you can put an Oculus Rift headset on and understand what it’s like to train with the England team now. In the last two years we’ve seen a huge advance in technology with the way people are using mobile phones and handsets and tablets; Wi-Fi is in venues; the way we now connect directly with our customers. We don’t sell O2 tariffs on texts and minutes now it’s all about bundles and data and that’s reflected in the way we activate stuff as well. It’s less about delivering a pie to people; although we still do that at Twickenham on a matchday. It’s about digital experiences now. And it allows us to have a digital audience right at our fingertips and reach a much bigger audience because of that.

So to answer your question, it’s moved on massively. I think the biggest evolution has been the last three of four years between the two World Cups.

Thanks to Oculus Rift technology, fans can now experience what it is like to train with the England team.

Have discussions begun over an extension to the four-year deal you signed with the RFU back in 2012? If not, when do you expect to sit down with them and talk through that?

Not yet. We usually get into that in the fourth year of a four-year deal. We talk about sponsorships all the time; it’s an ongoing thing. But we haven’t actually started conversations with the RFU; it’s something we won’t probably pick up until after the World Cup.

In terms of O2’s marketing activities and strategy, where does rugby fit within the overall mix?

This year it’s one of the big things that O2 as a brand will do, around rugby and England Rugby and the World Cup. So it’s really important. We have that huge support from our business around sponsorships and there’s a huge passion across the business for rugby.

Right at the heart of everything we do is ‘Priority’, so an awful lot of what we do in 2015 will be via the ‘Priority’ platform. There are seven million people on ‘Priority’ - it’s the leading customer loyalty programme in the country. So, for example, everything we do on match days is all available via ‘Priority’: all of our tickets and mascot places and kit giveaways, and offers, experiences and content, is all available via the ‘Priority’ app.

We’re a brand that rewards our customers first and foremost and the opportunity to do that with rugby this year and the audience it’s going to have is a huge opportunity for us. Again, to answer your question, it’s very important. One of the top things we’ll do this year will be focused around England Rugby.

And for the new ‘Wear the Rose’ creative, which is going to be on the walls at Twickenham, a lot of those people in it are actually our own O2 staff. So we’re engaging our staff in what we’re doing in 2015 with rugby. It’s hugely important to us as well. It’s such a great opportunity and there’s a real appetite with our colleagues right across the country to get involved.

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