x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

For rival fans, sponsorship deals clash with brand loyalty

Sports marketing experts offer their view on the capricious nature of brand loyalty.

An Etihad Airways Airbus was rebranded in the colours of Manchester City earlier this year to mark the airline's improved sponsorship deal with the football club. AFP
An Etihad Airways Airbus was rebranded in the colours of Manchester City earlier this year to mark the airline's improved sponsorship deal with the football club. AFP

On the same day that Etihad Airways announced a major sponsorship agreement with Manchester City in July, the airline rolled out a specially liveried plane, emblazoned with the football club's crest and painted nose to tail in a fetching light-blue colour scheme.

As well as referencing the team's nickname, the Sky Blues, the A330-200 aircraft also represented a tangible symbol of a significant investment, thought to be the largest sponsorship agreement in the history of sport. The 10-year deal will eventually net City up to £350 million (Dh2 billion) according to some observers, in return for retitling their home ground as the Etihad Stadium and for wearing the airline's name on their shirts.

Of course, this kind of marketing deal is nothing new to the beautiful game. For example, Arsenal's ground is currently named Emirates Stadium, while City's fierce local rivals, Manchester United, have their red and white colours adorning an airplane operated by Turkish Airlines.

Undoubtedly, it made perfect sense for Etihad to ally itself with City. Both have Abu Dhabi ownership, and the airline, launched eight years ago, has been able to raise awareness of its brand through its association with a high-flying football team - City are currently top of the pile in England - competing in the most watched football league on the planet.

But even such a groundbreaking deal is subject to the kind of turbulence that often prevails in the skies. The risk any company takes by binding its product to one team is that it may alienate rival supporters and, by extension, big chunks of its target demographic.

A doubtless apocryphal story currently doing the rounds in Abu Dhabi maintains that a few Manchester United fans - probably unsettled by the new-found success of their local rivals - have booked flights with Etihad but, when confronted with the blue plane at their departure gate, have steadfastly refused to board. When The Review contacted Etihad, the airline would not comment on this rumour.

There are, however, enough precedents to suggest it's not an altogether implausible scenario.

In 1996, for example, the food firm Quaker Oats Company hired Kevin Keegan, the former England striker and then Newcastle manager, to front a campaign for Sugar Puffs breakfast cereal. In the ensuing TV advert, Sugar Puffs' hirsute mascot, the Honey Monster, clad in Newcastle's famous black and white striped kit, is summoned from the substitute's bench by Keegan and subsequently snatches victory with a headed goal.

All of which sounds innocuous enough, except such was fellow north-east England club Sunderland's animosity for their rivals that their supporters spurned the cereal in droves, leading to a significant drop in Sugar Puffs' sales in that part of the UK.

Meanwhile in Scotland, both Glasgow Rangers and Celtic have been backed by the same shirt sponsor more often than not, to avoid antagonising fans on either side of the city.

So do companies have to weigh up the likelihood of negative fallout when considering sponsorship deals? Donal Kilalea, the CEO of Promoseven Sports Marketing, suggests they do.

"Football is a sport where you get these loyalties that follow the brand associated with their team, or conversely, oppose the brands that are associated with opposing teams. It is immensely tribal.

"For a lot of fans, a football club is their life, so they hate anything to do with their rival teams. Would that extend to them not getting on a plane painted in their rival team's colours? I guess it's possible."

But Brian Greenwood, managing partner of Dubai-based Public Relations & International Sports Marketing (Prism), was less credulous about the likelihood of the boycott of the City plane.

"I really can't see it happening these days," he says. "Research has shown that people are now much more switched on about sports sponsorship. They realise that a company's link with a club is only temporary and that if the product's good enough, they'd buy it anyway." Greenwood also believes that despite its hefty price-tag, Etihad's deal with Manchester City actually presents decent value for money.

"Before Eithad sponsored City, the vast majority of people in the UK hadn't heard of the airline. But after this, they became comfortable with the brand, they got used to seeing it and consequently, they get to hear about Abu Dhabi. As a brand-awareness platform, it's obviously worked extremely well. Etihad couldn't have gained this kind of exposure through TV or print media alone."

You also have to consider the market the airline was aiming to attract, explains Greenwood.

"I think they [the consumers] will be smart enough to figure out that Etihad is a great airline to fly on, and if they want to come to Abu Dhabi then it makes sense to use it. It's debatable that anyone so narrow-minded [as to refuse to get on the plane] would be sufficiently broad-minded to want to fly to Abu Dhabi in the first place.

"People come here because it's an interesting place and they want to broaden their horizons. If you're so blinkered that you're not going to fly on an airline because it sponsors a rival football club, it's unlikely you'd actually consider Abu Dhabi as a destination."

The sponsorship deal was also welcomed by Mark Lynch, who founded the Dubai Manchester City Supporters Club four years ago.

"I think Eithad's sponsorship has been brilliant for the club," he says. "They're the number one airline in the world, and it's done wonders for their brand. If you weren't aware of them before, you certainly would have been after they sponsored us. And personally, as a Blue, I can't wait to get on that plane."

But, if the football boot was on the other foot, would he willingly board the Turkish Airlines' Manchester United plane? "Probably. If I turned up at the airport and the plane I had to catch was in United's colours, I'd be a little bit down, but I'd still get on it. I'm not that superstitious and the rivalry doesn't extend to petty little things like that for me.

"I can imagine it does for some people though. I'm sure there are a few United fans that just would not book with Etihad just because they fear they would be on that plane and I do know some Mancunians who would have nothing to do with a company that sponsored their rival team.

"If I had the choice between flying a Manchester United liveried plane with Turkish Airlines or just a normal plane, of course I'd prefer to fly the other one. But if that was the only flight going to where I wanted to go, I'd probably get on it. At the end of the day, it's just a bit of a paint job isn't it?"