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RBS on innovation: 'sponsorship works well when you’re engaged with people at their passion points.'

By Jonathan Powell Friday, 12 May 2017 19:00

Photo credit: sportskeeda

It seems inevitable that over time the popularity of any sport will change, and so for governing bodies and sponsors the threat of ‘adapt or die’ must seem ever present. 

It raises the question that when seeking an event to sponsor, might brands more often now be looking for sports that are reinventing themselves, or is it simply more about skillfully engaging with fans?

Martyn Wilson, Head of Sponsorship, Hospitality & Events, RBS (Royal Bank of Scotland) shared his thoughts on this, and wider sponsorship best practice, with Yutang Sports, at the recent Telegraph Business of Sport event in London.

Wilson joined RBS in 2012 to lead their title sponsorship of the RBS 6 Nations rugby union championship. He now oversees the development of the sponsorship, acquisition and activation strategy, governance and evaluation across all brands and business franchises.

RBS is a PLC (Public Limited Company) in the UK, which has 13 brands under its umbrella. As such, its brand strategy is focused on the UK with some exposure into Europe. NatWest is its primary brand in England and Wales. NatWest has a long association with English cricket, covering sponsorship of county cricket.

“For us, it’s about buying audience as much as anything, so, as with most brands, that millennial audience is hugely important to us,” said Wilson. “I think this new audience will only come to traditional sports when they see that evolution and further development of the sport. It is really important for us to see that audience growing, because, like the sport, we are also looking to grow our audience. So for brands it is exceptionally important, to see innovation in the sport, and bringing new audiences into it.”

Chinese brands’ flurry of activity in the European sports property market could be seen as an effort to ‘buy into tradition or history’, but Wilson sees any such acquisitions as buying into a much wider range of values.

“Tradition is a strong element that brands will buy into. But I think the important thing is that brands are buying into a host of different values within sport. I think it must be said that governing bodies don’t keep up sometimes. For example we’ve seen with Nike, who are investing in athletics, that they have gone and created something without the governing body, as the governing body hasn’t been able to keep pace, and they haven’t evolved their sport. So, Nike created the two-hour marathon event that we saw. These concepts are born out of brands not getting the innovation from the governing bodies to engage with the audience they want to engage with.

“I think the governing bodies have a responsibility to lead on innovation, but if they are too slow with it then the brands will deal with it to keep moving forward. The structure of these governing entities is exceptionally broad and deep, and we understand it is difficult for them to keep pace with brands in the market place.”

Golf recently stepped towards finding a more marketable short form of the game, with The European Tour's Golf Sixes. It proved popular with players and fans and may be the blueprint for the sport's version of cricket's Twenty20 format.

But when reinventing a sport, it’s not always about changing the rules or format, and can be about the marketing, or more precisely, the engagement with fans. Cricket’s ‘Big Bash’ is a good example. The Big Bash League is an Australian professional Twenty20 Cricket league, which was established in 2011 by Cricket Australia and proved very popular, selling television rights worldwide.

“There is perhaps a false expectation that innovation will cannibalize the existing fans, but in fact it does the opposite and brings new audiences to the sport, like we have seen with T20 cricket,” said Wilson.

“For the younger audiences, everything is done with a mobile handset now, that’s the pace of their life, and if it isn’t in the top four on social media, they wont engage, they are driven by social space. It has to be sharp and short, so sport needs to adapt.

“Sponsorship works well when you’re engaged with people at their passion points. We will align our segmentation alongside the sport and test for that and make sure it aligns. As we work towards targeting a younger audience, we look at the sports that are engaged with that. With NatWest, T20 cricket came along at the right time for us. It was the right opportunity to engage with families and households. It needs to be aligned with the target, the brand story we’re telling, and who were trying to sell our product to. It’s about engaging with as many of our target segments as possible.”

Regarding broadcasting partnerships, when a sport chooses to go behind a pay wall (paid subscription), it can be a challenge for brands.

“With RBS, if you look at the Six Nations (rugby), the tournament itself hasn’t really evolved, it’s stayed consistent, but from the partnership with the (free-to-air) BBC and ITV profile it’s flourished, with little marketing spend. A broadcasting partnership is hugely important, but for a governing body there is a decision: to go for the money offered by going behind a pay-wall or seek more exposure and stay in front of the pay-wall.”    

Wilson says that the RBS re-launch of NatWest as its primary brand from within the Royal Bank of Scotland provided a strong platform to build strategy.

“We basically inherited the brand strategies from RBS, with ‘laser guided clarity’ on our target audience and what we’re trying to say as a brand. For me that was very valuable. I could then study the audience and develop a sponsorship acquisition strategy that ensures we’re speaking to the right audience. Then we look at the partners we’re working with to ensure that there are shared values and an opportunity to achieve what we want, both from a brand and commercial perspective. So, for us, firstly, we ask ‘is it the right audience?’ Then ‘how do we deliver brand value?’ Then ‘we ask ‘how do we deliver commercial value?’

“So, it is a combination of those three things, and that is where we get the perfect sponsorship. It’s about knowing which audience you want to speak to and what you want to say about the brand.

“The most important element in terms of sponsorship best practice is to be a true partner, to develop a working partnership. You never only invest in it and then expect something to happen. You have to work with the governing body or rights holder and their partners, their broadcast partners, to bring the sponsorship to life.

“It goes well beyond the rights, the important thing is to ensure you have a robust activation program that sits alongside it. We debate this with our board, that, yes we can pay for a rights package, but we need more to attach to it to make it happen. It’s not a case of just putting a brand logo on it and sitting back to see what happens, that is not going to draw any value for you. You have to engage properly with the asset.”           

Women’s sport is expected to receive more backing going forward as more sponsors are recognizing how they can align their brand values. RBS is funding The Guardian newspaper coverage of this summer’s Women’s Cricket World Cup.

“We’re working with the Guardian across a host of things, and the Women’s World Cup is one. England were previous world champions, so women’s cricket is strong here. The reason we’re working with The Guardian is that they’re supporting us across our whole ‘inclusion’ agenda (such as more exposure for women’s sport). NatWest, as an organization, believes in inclusion and a level playing field for everybody, so we’ve moved our sponsorship strategy to support that. What we’re doing with cricket is a good example, as it holds values that we appreciate.

“The Guardian is helping to raise the profile of ‘inclusion’, and in turn try to break down incorrect perceptions of cricket. The Guardian was carefully selected, as its readership is exceptionally socially conscious and aware, so it is a good audience to tell that story to. The Guardian are very good at telling the story, they have the quality of journalism we need, and we are comfortable to give them the license to create the content.” 



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