It has been the most memorable of years for Irish Rugby and main sponsors Vodafone have been winners by association.
A Grand Slam in the spring, bookended by victory over the All Blacks at the Aviva Stadium have kept the team at the top of the Irish sporting charts over this the third full year of the partnership with Vodafone.
The #TeamOfUs theme that has run throughout the campaign has brought the players and fans closer together through focusing on the connections that make Irish Rugby work, and not just on the results.
In our latest Sponsor Spotlight we sat down with Vodafone Sponsorship Manager Gerry Nixon to discover how the year has gone from their perspective.
Irish Rugby has never been in a better place. How does that impact on Vodafone as a brand?
What happens on the pitch is important but the #TeamOfUs is about celebrating the power of the collective. We are part of the connection between the team, the fans and how the whole picture comes together.
When we sat down in the first instance with the IRFU we had a shared objective to widen the base of fans beyond those who would have traditionally seen themselves as Rugby fans.
The intention, together, was to turn fans into supporters, and eventually into people who believe they have a genuine stake in the future of Irish rugby.
The success on the pitch is of course a major element in that but through our above the line advertising all the way through to social media we feel that we have helped all sides get to know each other better and turn ireland into the most interconnected team and fan base that there is.
How do you measure the impact of your sponsorship?
Vodafone is a global brand with a very high level of brand awareness. The most important element for us lies not in that but in the the affinity which the public feels towards the brand and the likelihood of consideration and reccommendation.
We have seen major increases in brand affinity and emotional engagement through our activities in Rugby and across summer Festivals over the past number of years.
Success with the team leads to a massive increase in reach but it is those underlying trends in how people feel about the brand rather than how many times they see it that are the most important.
We never take it for granted and we apply real rigour to the reseach we do that guides our campaigns.
Has the success of the relationship and the team driven sponsorship higher as part of your overall marketing mix?
We have always been believers in the power of sponsorship and have a track record at global as well as Irish level in association with major sponsorships.
We have made a major investment in being the principal supporter of irish Rugby and that leads to a responsibility to invest in the right areas to make it work for the business.
The IRFU are a great rightsholder to work with and the shared vision we have of bringing the team and the fans closer together has been brought to life through our advertising and the video content that we have created since coming on board.
The easiest part of sponsorship is writing a cheque but it is never good enough to do that and simply turn up waiting for things to happen. You have to work hard with an ambition that what you are doing will make all sides of the partnership beetr as a result.
Does the Irish Rugby partnership appeal better to any particular audience or demographic?
We always knew it was important to go beyond the traditional base of Rugby supporters.
That has happened over the years before we became directly involved but we are a part of continuing to develop support for the support.
It is played all across the country now and in communities that go way beyond the old idea of the main schools that have played. The success of the provinces as well as the national team have really driven up engagement.
Our overall marketing and social plan was always to reach beyond those who had played and engage those who would admit to still learning about the game. Coming together with friends to watch a game is important.
We put together good content in our mobile highlights hub with clips at half time and full time that have provem a real winner for Vodafone customers across all sectors of age, gender and spend.
Has the success of the partnership meant a greater credit and spotlight on Vodafone Ireland as part of the global group?
Our global CEO said recently that it was one of the best examples of sponsorship activation across the whole of the Vodafone Group so that was a good validation of what we are doing.
It’s a real team effort though with the many agencies we work with. JWT, Teneo, CMS Marketing, Onside, Wavemaker, OMD Ireland and Red C have all played their part.
How have you been able to manage the competitive space around Irish Rugby?
Irish rugby is popular with sponsors but we work well with all of them. It is the rights holders job to protect the assets which we as sponsors have paid for access to.
Exclusivity within our own space is very important but it’s also a key factor to make sure that everyone knows the boundaries they can go to in terms of attaching their brand to that of the sport and the players.
What do you imagine will be the balance in 2019 between the 6 Nations and the Rugby World Cup?
Both wil be incredibly important and in the words of Joe Schmidt we will all have to take the season one game at a time as it unfolds.
The team will be looking to peak tweice and as sponsors we will seek to do likewise. We have been through two 6 Nations now but the World Cup will be a new experience for us .
There is such a tradition and heritage to the 6 nNations that it will never be overshadowed and with only a limited number of games for ireland each year, every one has a real importance. We can do both tournaments equally well and that has to be the aim.
How much freedom will you have a steam sponsor in such a busy environemnt as the World Cup?
We are working through our planning for the whole of the year now. There is aonly a short window from the Guinness Series in November through to the start of the 6 Nations but we are used to that and a lot of the work is either done or well on the way.
We are continually reviewing and assesing the campaigns that have the greatest impact and the work we create for the Rugby World Cup will be special and have the power to stand out.
What would you say was the biggest win for the brand this year?
Despite all the really good results we have seen on social, TV stil stands out as the biggest single medium through which we can tell our story.
The advertisement we shot for this year featuring the very personal stories of Tadhg, Rory and Conor was a real winner in terms of the brand tracking research we do.
It’s rare that a single piece of advertising can cut through with such imopact but this was one of those.
And what was your personal highlight?
There is always a temptation to go with the most recent highlight and the All Blacks game ceratinly provided that.
As a single highlioght though I go back to the first game in the 6 Nations and the drop goal by Johnny Sexton.
That was everything that the #TeamOfUs represents. So many phases, so many players involved, so much collective holding of breath from the fans.
That build up, the final execution and the reaction of everyone on and off the pitch. That was the one.
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