A burgeoning UK grime star, a 23-year old French footballer dubbed the best midfielder in the world, and UK£89.3 million. It seems like a dangerous combination but, as Tom Lloyd discovers, for global apparel brand Adidas it brought about a unique opportunity to develop one of the most innovative and progressive examples of viral marketing in sport.
Much has been made this summer of the Premier League’s excessive spending. In the 2016 close season, Premier League clubs spent more than UK£1 billion on new players for the first time ever. Throughout the summer months deals flooded the back pages, and while fans across the world marvelled at the gargantuan fees being agreed, click-hungry journalists wrote about the gross capitalist greed taking over the sport. Whichever way you turned, there was an opinion to be read.
Central to this spending, and often used as pawn in those polarised opinions, was a 23-year-old from an eastern suburb of Paris, France. Paul Pogba, sold by Manchester United to Juventus for a comparatively measly fee of just £800,000 in 2012, re-joined the Red Devils for a world record UK£89.3 million, becoming the most expensive player in the history of the game.
The deal was formally announced by Manchester United on 8th August, and Pogba went on to make his second debut for the club at home to Southampton on the 19th of the same month. But for onlookers in sports marketing, it wasn’t the actual signing that was interesting, it was the story that preceded it.
The transfer dragged on for weeks, as many do, with reports aplenty of arguments over agent fees and image rights. But still, the world watched with bated breath. Here, one of the world’s best supported teams was about to sign one of the world’s most popular players, and everyone was interested. But while the world’s eyes were focused on the gossip columns of back pages, one of Manchester United’s top sponsors saw a unique activation opportunity.
Ultimately, Manchester United’s ability to pay out such an enormous fee for Pogba is based, in part, on the copious funds that stream into the club from their sponsors. Global sportswear manufacturer Adidas pay the club UK£75 million per year, as part of a ten-year deal, and in return demand the right to activate their brand wherever possible.
Manchester United were not the only Adidas partner involved in the transfer: indeed, the company has boasted Pogba as a brand ambassador since the turn of the year. It stands to reason, therefore, that Adidas were set to benefit immensely from the deal, with countless shirts expected to fly off the shelves, and Pogba-endorsed boots likely to be seen on the feet of amateur heroes the world over. The company, it’s safe to say, were uniquely linked to the deal – not least as it is also the kit supplier to Juventus.
“There are a number of key stakeholders involved in any transfer process now,” says Anne Semens, head of analytics at Havas Sport and Entertainment. “Though a sponsor is unlikely to have the final say in transfer deals, the relationships they have with the parties in a deal can help to facilitate conversations. The move was always undoubtedly going to benefit both Adidas and Manchester United.”
Many brands may have been inclined to sit back in such a situation. However, the hard work, in essence, was already being done. The Manchester United shirts would sell and the latest Adidas boots would be bought whether the brand activated or not. Yet a brand like Adidas, keen to brunish its credentials as an innovator, was not going to rest on its laurels.
Instead, the company took the unique step to activate on the transfer saga itself. Rather than wait for the deal to be completed, the brand chose to become part of the fan conversation.
To begin with, it created a series of short, shareable videos which it posted across social media. The clips, featuring UK grime artist and Adidas ambassador Stormzy, began to appear around the same time that gossip surrounding Pogba’s move to United gathered pace, and dropped subtle hints that collaboration between the two might be realised.
The initial videos featured Stormzy, dressed in Manchester United gear, rapping about false newspaper gossip, with samples of one of his best known releases, ‘Shut Up’, interspersed throughout.
These were then followed by similar videos of Pogba himself growing annoyed at the newspaper’s talking about him, once again using Stormzy’s ‘Shut Up’ samples. By referencing the endless clamour of news outlets attempting to be the first to break the story, Adidas capitalised on the frustrations of fans awaiting an announcement. According to Semens, it’s likely Adidas knew more than most.
“Adidas really were core to all of the buzz around this transfer,” says Semens. “It’s probably the first time that we’ve seen any sponsor so integrated in to the transfer window. Ordinarily this is a pretty dead time for them, but here they took the opportunity to be centre stage.”
The initial videos achieved viral success, and succeeded in ensuring that Adidas became a part of every Pogba conversation. But the company’s biggest activation was yet to come.
Days gone by have seen new signings announced by the release of officially sanctioned images of them standing proudly side by side with their new manager, holding aloft a scarf or shirt. On other occasions, they might be found awkwardly smiling as they crane over a contract.
Manchester United, Pogba, and Adidas, though, were not working to the agenda of days gone by.
At around midnight on 7th August, Adidas’ official Twitter account ‘accidentally” leaked a music video featuring Pogba, clad head to toe in Manchester United gear. The leak, whether accidental or not, sent social media in to overdrive, and by the morning the next day, Manchester United had released the video themselves, as official confirmation that Pogba had returned.
The 48-second music video features Pogba dancing alongside Stormzy as he raps a verse from his song, ‘Nigo Duppy’. Instantly catchy and shareable, the video had been viewed six million times on Twitter by the end of the day.
To put that in perspective, Pogba’s six million views in a day dwarfs the 318,000 views that Granit Xhaka’s Arsenal announcement video received, and dominates the 278,000 achieved by Chelsea’s account as they unveiled N’Golo Kante.
Across the city, and on the same day, Manchester City’s announcement of John Stones signing received 18,000 retweets, while Pogba’s charted over 229,000.
The success was enormous, from an analytics perspective, and the brand value delivered was not reserved solely for Pogba himself. Across total web traffic in the week of the announcement, ‘Adidas’ was searched nearly 17,000 times. In the week preceding it, the company’s name was mentioned only 3,700 times.
“This transfer was really played out on social media,” says Semens. “Brands are now recognising the opportunity to join the conversation, and I think that will continue. Activating the transfer saga was very well orchestrated, and the personalities involved certainly helped.”
The activation broke new ground, and has set a new standard for sports marketing. But it remains an opportunistic event for Adidas and, according Semens, those teams and sponsors that try to follow suit need to be careful how they tread.
“I don’t think this will be a one-off,” she says. “It will certainly have given other brands and clubs ideas, but the size of the fee meant that there was a lot of buzz around the transfer. We probably wouldn’t see such interest in a smaller transfer from the media, so in this case a similar campaign probably wouldn’t have worked out as well.”
Now, as attention turns to Pogba’s ability on the pitch, both Manchester United and Adidas will be hoping that he replicates his success off it.