How Aon geared up for soccer sponsorship

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Part of Aon Corp.'s strategy in its sponsorship of soccer club Manchester United is to excite and unify the company, which has been created from 450 acquisitions in 23 years. If global creative director Eric Sawitoski is any indication, the sponsorship, which officially began June 1, is already working. Sawitoski, who started working on the sponsorship about the time it was announced 12 months ago, is so pumped about the relationship between Manchester United and the insurance brokerage that he had the team's nickname—Red Devils—tattooed on his right forearm. Others at Chicago-based Aon are showing their excitement in more conventional ways. “You get the opportunity to work on something like this once in a lifetime, not only for Aon but for me as a marketer,” Hans Van Heukelum, head of global marketing for Aon Risk Services told BtoB. Along with Aon CMO Phil Clement, Van Heukelum, Sawitoski and the rest of the company's marketing team have spent the past year positioning Aon to maximize its leverage of the Manchester United sponsorship. “We didn't realize the benefit to having a lead period in between announcing the deal and getting ready for it,” Van Heukelum said. The path to the partnership began with a direct mail piece from Manchester United that wound up on Clement's desk. The high-end mailing, which solicited potential shirt sponsors, contained a Man U jersey imprinted with the Aon logo. It captured the company's imagination, but many barriers had to be negotiated before the Aon name was printed on the Man U shirt for real. The cost of the sponsorship, which is reportedly valued at about $120 million for four years, was a key stumbling block, Clement said in a speech earlier this month at the Business Marketing Association's annual conference in Chicago. The company had cut benefits and jobs, so spending money on a sports sponsorship in a down economy could be seen as a “boondoggle,” Clement said. Arguably, it might make more sense to make many more bets on smaller sponsorships. Then there was the issue of the previous Man U shirt sponsor: AIG, the insurance giant that received a $182 billion bailout from the U.S. government. But Clement said his “Vulcan, logic-boy” side found plenty of arguments to overcome the objections. For Aon, a company focused on international growth, aligning with the top brand in a global sport such as soccer made sense. Manchester United says it has 333 million fans around the world, and 88 million people every week watch its games on television. “There's nothing like a shirt deal,” said Chuck Costigan, founder of Costigan & Associates, a sports sponsorship consultancy. “Only with a jersey deal do you get the exposure at away games, home games and on television. And don't forget the merchandise sales.” Manchester United sells an estimated 6.6 million shirts annually, more than all NFL jerseys combined. The value of that kind of exposure is hard to measure, but during the first year of its Manchester United shirt sponsorship, AIG jumped to No. 47 in the Interbrand ranking in 2007 after not being ranked the previous year. During Clement's tenure as CMO, which began four years ago, the company has focused on internal branding, defining itself for its employees as focused on excellence, client service and teamwork. With the Manchester United deal, Aon will begin a big external branding push. “Branding will help us reach the next level. Branding is the next step on our journey,” Van Heukelum said. “It makes sense,” said Jim Gregory, CEO of CoreBrand, a branding consultancy. “It's a great way to build a brand. It all depends on how they execute it.” True to form, however, the first step has been using Manchester United for internal branding, Clement said. The new Aon-branded Man U shirt will officially be unveiled July 15, shortly after the World Cup final match on July 11, but Aon has been at work using the sponsorship to unite the company for a year. To emphasize unity, employees are wearing lapel pins with the slogan, “Aon United in 2010.” Aon has also used global town hall meetings and such programs as Follow the Football, in which it sent soccer balls to company offices from Norway to Botswana to Australia to get employee signatures. It then presented the balls to Manchester United. Aon is also emphasizing teamwork by having employees around the globe participate in child-oriented charity work affiliated with Manchester United. Many Aon offices now feature soccer-themed murals on their walls. In Chicago, a mural features a Manchester United player accompanied by the phrase, “Passion+Results//United.” Of course, the main push will be external branding. In Johannesburg, a local Aon office has hung a banner to greet soccer fans on hand for the World Cup. Aon is running an ad on Manchester United's website. It has also begun running print ads in industry publications featuring the headline “United in results.” The Man U relationship will become the center of Aon's event marketing. In the past Aon sponsored scores of unrelated events around the world, such as beer tastings in Australia and dragon boat races in China. The Man U venture will unify event sponsorship spending and make it more efficient, Clement said. Additionally, he believes it will build business. The sponsorship will include entertaining customers and prospects at Manchester United games both in England and when the team plays around the globe. Additionally, Aon hopes to use local events, such as the recent “skills and drills” program in which children of customers and prospects in North America were invited for four hours of instruction with Manchester United coaches. The upshot of these local events was that Aon employees got to spend quality time with clients and prospects. “No one left,” Van Heukelum said. “They took a lot of pictures.” Clement said Aon will measure the impact of entertainment related to the sponsorship. It will study whether bringing customers to events increases existing business and whether bringing prospects results in new business. “If we can't measure it,” Clement said, “we don't do it.” M
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