For 21 years telecommunications firm O2 has sponsored the England national rugby union team, adorning their shirts through some highs, and more recent lows. As the oval ball game’s international presence grows, and more money is pumped into the sport, O2 has renewed its deal for a further five years. In doing so, it has seen an opportunity to use the platform for experimentation.
Speaking to SportsPro after the renewal and ahead of 2016’s autumn internationals, O2’s head of sponsorship Gareth Griffiths charts the history of the long-term partnership, and what the future holds for what he dubs the most “innovative sponsorship going”.
After 21 years with the Rugby Football Union (RFU), why did you decide to again renew this partnership?
We’ve had this deal for a long time now and it’s become core to the O2 brand, alongside both music and sport.
We have our sponsorship of the O2 Arena, as well as the 19 O2 Academies around the country which have always been great since we’ve launched them. It’s a very competitive world out there now with sports sponsorship and now as the Six Nations becomes bigger than it’s ever been, being on both BBC and ITV; the rugby-playing home nations are really hot property now.
Because of that, it’s a fascinating partnership for us, and having been together so long, and the way rugby is developing, it was a no-brainer to continue to build.
With such a long partnership, how hard is it to keep doing new things?
Well, because we’ve been together for so long, it could have been very tricky when we renewed. We know each other inside out - so well, in fact, that we could’ve ended up looking at each other and wondering, where do we go from here?
But instead, we’ve used that obstacle as an opportunity to push the boundaries and it’s ended up putting us in a really good place.
Having done so much together previously, we can now say to ourselves, “Right, what’s the latest experimental technology, or the newest trend? And let’s see how we can play with it.” So from that angle, it’s letting us really develop.
You talk about ‘pushing the boundaries’ with the partnership, but what do you actually have planned in the short term?
Immediately, we’re thinking about everything we can do in the future. We’ve got five seasons now and it’s time to start thinking about what our overarching brand campaigns are going to be.
Straight away we have the Old Mutual Wealth series coming up, so we need to think about what we are going to do there. While we do that though, we’ll be working away in the background on our next great project.
We’ll be working once more on how to really get the best out of our hospitality areas at Twickenham, and the stadium now has new LED displays, which we’re going to really work hard to better make use of.
On top of that, as well, we also want to get a lot of focus on grassroots rugby within the community, and what we can do there to help grow the sport from the bottom up. We’ve begun work on this already, going around the country with roadshows, and it already has 17,500 people signed up and getting involved.
Looking at the long term, how do you want to ‘push the boundaries’ and do things differently this time?
Fundamentally, the sponsorship is about getting people to show their support of O2 through the team, and so we have to put that at the centre of everything we do.
To do this, though, we are going to be a lot more creative this time, and really experiment. For example, we’ve obviously done LED perimeter boards before, and we’re going to do them again, but because they are already in place, we can look at what new twists we can put on it. So now, instead of just putting our branding on there, we are saying, “OK, our branding is on there, but how can we make it interact with the fans, how can we make it do something different?” And we have some exciting things to reveal around that.
On top of this, there is now Wi-Fi coverage at the majority of Twickenham stadium, which is opening up new doors for us. It’s allowing us to directly interact with consumers, so we can give added value to our O2 customers and push promotions to non-customers.
When you think back to five or six years ago at Twickenham we didn’t have any of these opportunities, so things have escalated quickly and we’re excited to continue that momentum. There used to be a patchwork of sponsors littered around the stadium but now it’s much clearer, which really allows us to stand out. We’re really excited by Twickenham these days, it’s a wonderful stadium, and we’re working together with the RFU to make it one of the most connected stadiums on the planet.
We’re always very innovative; we always want to try things for the first time. We know that things aren’t always going to work but were a company that is happy to take those knocks and keep trying, which is great. We love to be the first people to do things, and we were the first rugby sponsorship to do virtual reality and 3D and we’re carrying those on now.
It’s about trying stuff out and we’re not scared. We’ve got some special things coming up that will be first experiences, and we’ll see how they go.
What still draws you to the RFU and England Rugby?
The core of it for us is that we just love how rugby is played. The sport has respect, passion, determination, honour, which we admire, and the way that fans can sit with their family and enjoy a pint, well that really just sits well with us as a brand.
We love that there really is something for everyone in rugby, whether you want to play it or watch it. The sport really builds a community - one that is really tight-knit, be that at grassroots or international - and that fits so well with us.
The RFU has a great model as well, and is one of the highest-earning unions in the world, and that’s because they are great to work with as commercial partners. They are a union that is really happy to try new things and for us, as innovators, it sits brilliantly. We’re looking forward to the next five years.
How far do you want to take the sponsorship? Both in terms of time and scale?
This is a digital partnership. That sounds broad but the potential of digital is immense, and we want to keep it broad so we can be agile.
Whether that means LED pitchside, or sending brilliant branded content direct to consumers’ phones, it doesn’t matter. We just want to push all of those digital options.
Keeping that broad spectrum is really important for us. Take virtual reality, for example. We’ve looked at virtual reality before and how you can use it for broadcasting, but now because of the freedom we can say, “Right, where else can we use it?” And we have some exciting virtual reality developments in ticketing coming up.
The other great thing about this partnership is the team. There are some great personalities in there like Dylan Hartley, who is brilliant at marketing himself and the team well, while the women’s team are going really well.
Really, there isn’t a part of this partnership that we aren’t excited to explore to the furthest point. We don’t know what we’ll do yet, but this partnership continues to be a journey of discovery.