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The Odd Couple: Aon and Manchester United in a Win-Win Sponsorship Program

Warc, March 28, 2011

By Geoffrey Precourt

"We may be the least likely company you can imagine to talk about sports marketing," admitted Philip Clement, Aon's Global Chief Marketing and Communications Officer, in an address to the 2011 IEG Return on Engagement: Sponsorship's Impact on Business conference in Chicago.

The $7.6 billion company is a global provider of insurance brokerage services and products, advice, web-based risk-management information systems, and a variety of other consulting services.

And, according to independent third-party service evaluations, it does its job well, holding the number-one spot in evaluations of global insurance brokers, retail brokerages, reinsurance intermediaries, international benefits providers, screening-and-assessment providers, as well as actuary and investment consultancies.

As Clement explained, Aon's success as a business-to-business enterprise has been grounded in building a brand with expertise in sales systems and focused metrics around quantitative analysis data. "It's pretty geeky stuff," he allowed.

And in a sports marketing world where the likes of Gatorade and Bud Lite rule, "geeky" seems a difficult fit.

But, cautioned Clement, consider Aon's marketplace and its competition for industry leadership: "We're a Chicago-based business-to-business company that employs 59,000 people in 120 countries with a total of 500 offices. We've managed to grow to this size through a series of 440 acquisitions… In 23 years, we've grown from a small noble footprint to become a Fortune 200 company."

In an industry that began in the late 17th Century in London, Aon's corporate history tracks back to the 1919 founding of Combined Insurance Company of America. Since then, it has continued to prosper and grown through phases of, first, national consolidation and, more recently, global consolidation. Clearly, it is one of the enterprises poised for global leadership. But, to reach its mark, it needs to build its brand – no matter how geeky its roots.

"We had to do something evangelistic," Clement said, something that would have more of a multi-national impact than its sponsorship programs on behalf of ice-sculpting in Norway, beer festivals in Australia, wine festivals in France, and dragon-boat racing in Hong Kong. Aon was even a principal sponsor of the Catlin Arctic Survey, a program to measure the depth of ice in that polar region (and to interpret the consequences of global warming – a top priority for one of its insurance companies based near the North Pole.

"It was all a lot of fun," Clement said, "but we weren't sending out a consistent message."

So, a global brand – in search of a pre-emptive brand position – needed to find a global partner whose DNA would immediately connote best-in-class performance.

And, with its former partner AIG imploding, English football club Manchester United had an opening on its jersey for a brand sponsor.

Some numbers caught the attention of not just Clement but his CEO and the board. "Manchester United had the number one brand, the number one team in the world's most popular sport. It had been around for 100 years. Its games are aired into 1.15 billion households in 227 countries. It has 88 million fans watching every week it plays and 60 million web page impressions. And it has a prompted brand awareness of 100% in the UK, 98% in Germany, 100% in Korea, 90% in China, and 80% in Japan… And Korea is the fastest-growing insurance market in Asia."

Those are just the kind of numbers that a match geek likes. And there were more, Clement said. "Manchester United has 333 million fans worldwide - a number that's equal to the combined total populations of the United States, Canada and Australia." From an American perspective - where the National Football League has the dominant share of sports fan attention from autumn right through to the Super Bowl - the fan base of Manchester United bought more team jerseys than the fans of all 32 different NFL teams combined.

That said, there were a number of reasons to steer away from a sports-marketing program. "There was a general skepticism about sports sponsorships in general," Clement said. For many within the company, the Manchester United program sounded like "a couple of tickets, a couple of beers." And to some, "There wasn't a lot of business associated with it."

Another issue was the consequences of economic turmoil for a company such as Aon, where defining pensions and benefits as well as reducing workforces had become everyday considerations. "People on the outside might have thought it was a boondoggle (a waste of time and money)." And, even though the rational business reasons might outweigh such emotional considerations, there was the catastrophic legacy of AIG, Manchester United's most recent sponsor.

"We'd spent a lot on time getting ready for Manchester United. And, right up until three minutes before we had the deal, we all knew that we had to be 100% ready to walk away from the deal. We'd had six months of communications and a month-and-a-half of complete focus. Twenty different people were very seriously involved [in the negotiations]." And some people not so closely tied to the process were asking, 'How can you all invest so much time in this?'"

Clement boiled the choice down to this: "We could have looked for 120 teams in the 120 countries where we do business and do 120 different things with 120 different marketing organizations, with 120 logos to approve, 120 speeches to write for our CEOs, and the orchestration of 120 different talking points."

Or, they could talk the language of the Manchester United brand, which was spoken clearly – and with distinction – in all of Aon's operating markets.

Aon management chose to support the global program. "It became out strategic priority; our CEO and our board were very clear about it."

And, they passionately pursued the sponsorship with a set of goals that would align themselves with a Manchester United sponsorship program:

  • Unite the firm.
  • Maximize efficiency of spend.
  • Generate new business.

"Everyone worked hard. We all believed in it – finance did everything it could; marketing did everything it could; our CEO did everything he could. For four straight days, we were all in contact at any hour of the day." It was, he said, a "unified strategy" none of the other contenders could match.