Rugby World Cup 2019 | The platform for sponsorship activation

Japan presents an exciting and unique platform for brands and sponsors to activate at the 2019 Rugby World Cup

With the 2019 Rugby World Cup kicking off on the 20th September, Fusers Sarah Riddoch and Raul Alexis take a look at how brands have historically activated at the event and their approaches to the World Cup in Japan.

With a total of 48 matches being played across 12 stadiums and an estimated 1.8 million fans in attendance, the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan is set to be the largest yet. This is despite the fact that this Autumn’s showpiece will be the first World Cup that the IRB has staged in a so-called Tier 2 Rugby nation, and the first in Asia. It represents a significant leap of faith from a sport that has focused exclusively on its traditional strongholds for more than a century.

The Japanese Rugby market

Despite some huge developments in Japanese Rugby since the Brave Blossoms’ shock win over the Springboks in 2015 (including an almost 200% increase in the number of Japanese children playing rugby and the country’s first Super Rugby franchise), the sport still lags far behind Football, Sumo wrestling and Baseball in popularity.

While the objective of the IRB is clear, to grow the game in a relatively immature rugby market, putting the World Cup in a new market presents the cohort of brands who traditionally activate around the sport (World Cup Sponsors, National Union sponsors, and ambushing brands) with a unique set of challenges.

As one would expect, this World Cup cycle has naturally seen Japanese brands jumping on the opportunity to not only speak to their local market but also broaden the global reach and profile of their brands through association with the largest Rugby event in history. Below the list of top tier ‘Worldwide Sponsors’ (who remain largely the same since 2015), Japanese brands such as Taisho, Secom, Hito-Communications and others have come on board as second and third tier partners and ‘suppliers’. For example, following Coca Cola’s six-year stint as official partner of the RWC, the IRB replaced it with Japanese brand Suntory as the new official soft drinks supplier for the tournament, a brand that has a long history of association with Japanese domestic rugby.

How will European brands react to the Rugby World Cup being hosted in Japan?

For the likes of traditional European brands in the Rugby space, even for current World Cup sponsors, the out-of-market location of the tournament will have a huge impact on the nature of their activation. For national sponsors like BT, Vodafone and O2 (principal partners of Scotland, Ireland and England respectively), the challenges are acute. On top of the barriers that come with the significant time difference and having little to no footprint in Japan, the Rugby World Cup is identified as a ‘clean’ tournament, meaning all official World Cup venues will be devoid of any non-official World Cup sponsor presence. This of course includes the space on the front of the national teams’ shirts that these brands pay so dearly for. The clean shirt-fronts undoubtedly make the association of these brands with what fans are watching, tenuous at best. These national sponsors will have to rely upon and consolidate the foundations they have developed in the sport over a long history of investment and association (In O2’s case, its 24-year sponsorship of the RFU is the longest shirt sponsorship in history) and activate more tactically and efficiently around the tournament’s key moments.

In 2011 we saw ourselves in a similar situation where New Zealand’s time zone meant matches kicked off in the early morning, UK time – not ideal for one of the sport’s biggest TV markets. One brand that came at the problem from a unique angle was O2. The brand launched its ‘Get Up for England’ campaign, offering customers a wake-up call from England Team Coach, Martin Johnson and it also delivered over 90,000 England Rugby Breakfast Packs for customers to enjoy from the comfort of their sofa. They proved here that whilst watching intense sport at such an early hour isn’t ideal, it’s also a unique opportunity for brands to engage with fans in a more unconventional manner.

Fan consumption of sport has changed

Since 2011, we have of course seen the way that fans consume sports content change significantly. The previous World Cup, England 2015, was the most digitally engaged to date. Throughout the tournament, #RWC2015 was used twice a second across the event, over five million times in total and there were over 270 million World Cup-related video views on all social media channels. For the 2019 edition, flexible digital channels such as streaming platforms and Video on Demand (VOD) are predicted to see a major increase in usage for UK fans as they look to fit matches around busy schedules and work hours. A recent survey showed that 30% of those that plan to tune in over the next six weeks anticipate that they will be catching up with matches or highlights on the ITV Hub.

Since 2015, we have seen brands respond to this fan migration in the rugby space with some brilliant success. Around the 2015 tournament, we saw many brands: World Cup sponsors, National Union sponsors and ambushing brands, invest heavily in digital content. Official IRB sponsors of course received the most coverage due to their exclusive access to World Cup venues (and therefore exposure through broadcast), but we saw worldwide sponsors such as Land Rover and Heineken complement this advantageous position with big-budget video content campaigns, weaving in sole and exclusive assets (the Trophy Tour and Coin Toss, for Land Rover and Heineken respectively) to gain even further traction.

However, we also saw National Union sponsors and ambushing brands make in-roads into the market. O2, without World Cup rights but nonetheless in an exceptional position as the principal partner of the host nation, went big with its #WearTheRose campaign. Its leading animated ‘Make them Giants’ content was reinforced by more traditional platforms such as large-scale events and significant out-of-home spend around the country, but was also followed up by experimenting with mobile-ready VR to put England fans in the shoes of their heroes.

Even ambushing brands such as Guinness were able to see business results that it could tangibly tie to campaigns released around the World Cup. The brand capitalised on its inherently strong association with Rugby in the UK and continued to release impactful content under its ‘Made of More’ creative banner. The content garnered over 22 million views across social and Guinness sales jumped 4% during the tournament.

Challenges for the 2019 Rugby World Cup

Fast forward to 2019 and the focus of European-based sponsors on digital has only been enhanced. This is both due to brands being more familiar with the digital platforms that their audiences inhabit, and out of necessity due to the out-of-market location of the tournament.

With the tournament being held thousands of miles away from their core markets, European-based World Cup sponsors do not have access to the IRB’s zones of exclusivity to engage their target audiences, as they enjoyed in 2015. National Union sponsors are far removed from the teams they are meant to be supporting. The challenge therefore, is how these brands can stand out and drive their association with this event and the teams participating in it, especially if other brands can operate on an equal digital footing. This is where rights utilisation comes into its own and sponsorship agencies prove their worth.

Rights such as IP usage, tickets, access to talent, and sole and exclusive assets, such as Land Rover’s Trophy Tour, must be used intelligently to create stand out from the crowd. Heineken this year has created a through-the-line campaign that utilises all of these assets. As in 2015, the Official Beer of the World Cup, has invested heavily in IRB talent, using them at the centre of its content to promote the social side of watching Rugby and backing your team. This digital content is complemented by media partnerships across the UK and Ireland, pub takeovers and events, and the widespread use of World Cup IP on packaging.

2019 Rugby World Cup brand activations

Canon has teamed up with ex-England captain, Martin Johnson, and used iconic World Cup imagery to bring back the goose bumps of England’s 2003 victory, while sharing the brand’s exclusive and historic role in rugby. The content spans across social, digital, print and online.

At the National Union level, O2 launched its digital-first campaign around the England team, continuing its iconic #WearTheRose platform, albeit this time with a hint of Japanese flavour. The hero content, ‘Be Their Armour’ demonstrates O2’s clever usage of RFU IP, again exploiting its unique access to the RFU’s iconic rose logo and placing it at the very heart of a patriotic campaign. On top of this lead content, O2 has also released a series of videos with former England player Ugo Monye and reality TV star Jamie Laing. O2 ‘Travel Fan in Japan’ follows the duo as they discover Japan, in the same style as popular travel comedy shows, such as Jack Whitehall’s Travels with my Father.

In summary, the Rugby World Cup 2019 no doubt presents an extremely exciting and unique platform for brands and sponsors alike to produce outstanding work. Succeeding in Japan will require brands to showcase innovative and creative excellence if they want to make the most of the opportunity and capitalise on the exciting prospect of the largest and most historical rugby event to date.

As we have witnessed over the last decade, the digital world has continued to evolve, and brands have recognised the demand and capitalised on this through the release of various successful social campaigns. The Rugby World Cup in Japan no doubt promises to present us with even more compelling campaigns in 2019 and with England set for a strong performance on the field, it’s time to see which brands will be victorious in making the most of this unique Rugby World Cup opportunity.

Sarah Riddoch is an Account Executive and Raul Alexis is a Senior Account Manager at Fuse.