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Q&A with John Trainor, CEO and Founder of Onside

Posted By The Marketing Institute, Thursday 8 October 2015
Updated: Wednesday 10 February 2016
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    How has the rugby fan base changed in recent years, and what might that mean for sponsors of major events like the Rugby World Cup?

    Rugby itself has evolved as a sport greatly in the past decade, attracting a more diverse body of fans and participants and becoming more global in its reach. Women’s participation in rugby, for example, has increased by 20% in only the last year, with an estimated 1.7 million women and girls now involved in the sport. Rugby’s expanding geographical appeal is evident in this year’s World Cup, as well. The RFU expects nearly half a million international fans to travel to the U.K. over the six-week event, more than in any previous Rugby World Cup. This suggests that sponsors who integrate a more diverse and global perspective into their campaigns will engage a wider audience, a strategy that will prove beneficial to long-term success as brands look forward to 2019, when the Rugby World Cup will be held in Asia for the first time.

    How might effective sponsorship strategies for the Rugby World Cup differ, if at all, from those of other major sporting events?

    The Rugby World Cup is different from other comparable sporting events in that there isn’t an over-abundance of player celebrity spotlighting to capitalize on for brand awareness. Many rugby athletes have yet to reach the international stardom surrounding other professional sports, like football, and this presents its own unique set of challenges to effective sponsorship. Both the RFU and its associated partners have focused instead on emphasizing camaraderie, communal belonging, and other shared character-building values of the sport to build positive associations in the minds of consumers. Much of the team-centric rhetoric has been activated through grassroots initiatives to increase rugby participation and enjoyment across the globe by World Rugby, as well as major sponsors like Land Rover and Coca Cola.

    Social media has become a hot button for effective marketing campaigns, both during major events and for continued customer outreach. How have brands been approaching social media as an engagement tool during the Rugby World Cup?

    Social media marketing is indeed a hot button, especially when implemented with the right level of authenticity. The most prominent trend I’ve noticed is the way brands are emphasizing community and shared values, themes that have been at the core of this Rugby World Cup, to connect fans through social media. These themes actually translate quite naturally, as social media platforms are essentially realms to create “community” with others around the world. Dove played off of this relationship nicely with their #ScrumTogether campaign, which celebrated moments of friendship and unity during the event, on Twitter. Other successful examples include Land Rover’s #WeDealnReal campaign, which invited amateur rugby players to share their team stories through social media, and O2’s #WearTheRose campaign to encourage solidarity with England’s rugby team amongst its supporters.

    Are there any really interesting or unusual activation strategies that you’ve noticed during this year’s Rugby World Cup?

    It’s been fascinating to watch how emerging technologies, specifically virtual and augmented reality, have been used to engage fans in entirely new ways during this Rugby World Cup. An exciting piece of sponsorship activation was the Blippar AR app, which allows attendees to scan their World Cup tickets for special augmented reality content. And it’s not only tech companies that are promoting their brands through these platforms; AIG, for example, released a virtual reality app to provide New Zealand fans with a 360° view of the All Blacks’ haka. Technology is really providing us with new opportunities to create memorable associations.

    How do you think the Rugby World Cup is benefitting Irish sponsors and businesses, if at all?

    The Rugby World Cup holds great potential for Irish brands to reach fans and supporters at home, and industry practitioners would agree. Our Industry survey research indicates that 50% of sponsors see the Rugby World Cup as an opportunity to engage with consumers in Ireland, with 45% of both sponsors and rights holders viewing rugby as the strongest opportunity for growth of their business through sponsorship this year. Creating a partnership with the Irish Rugby Team has been, perhaps, the most obvious way to use the event for customer engagement, and companies that emphasize Irish heritage and pride, like Aer Lingus, have done so especially well.

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