Ambush and Amateurism: How Rugby World Cup Sponsorship Began

The closer we get to the start of the 2015 Rugby World Cup, which Synergy is working on for four of the tournament’s sponsors and one of ITV’s broadcast sponsors, the more I’ve been reminded of the very different commercial background to the 1991 Rugby World Cup, the first time the RWC was staged in England, and the huge impact the tournament had on rugby and sports marketing in the UK. So, being (I suspect) one of a fairly small group of people to have worked on both RWC 1991 and 2015, here’s my take on the formative years of RWC sponsorship.

Ahead of RWC 2015, the eighth Rugby World Cup, we have a very good idea of what the tournament’s going to be like off the field – consumer behaviour, media coverage, brand activations, and so on. But ahead of the 1991 tournament, the Rugby World Cup was an unknown quantity for UK marketers.

It was by far the biggest sporting event to have been staged in the UK since the 1966 World Cup, so it was our first taste of a world event for merely twenty-five years.

The first Rugby World Cup, held in Australia and New Zealand in 1987, hadn’t really cut through here at all: rugby was a much smaller sport than it is now – pro rugby was still eight years away – and the Antipodean time-zone meant that pre-Sky, pre-satellite media coverage in the UK was after the fact, and light.

There were no meaningful sponsorship benchmarks: only a handful of companies had signed up to sponsor RWC 1987, almost all of them Japanese brands motivated solely by strong TV coverage of the tournament in Japan. One, KDD, paid more than the others and effectively became the tournament’s title sponsor. And as we shall see, in 1991 another Japanese brand repeated the trick.

A 1987 Rugby World Cup Final ticket. Note the KDD branding.

These were also evolutionary times for sports marketing in the UK. Although the industry was growing fast, the supply of opportunities was still limited, rights holders were old-school and commercially under-skilled (not least in rugby), and among brands, sports marketing was very much a minority activity.

The result of all that was that many of the operating principles we take for granted today just didn’t apply ahead of RWC 1991.

And the biggest difference was how RWC 1991 event and broadcast sponsorships were sold.

Today, it’s well-established practice for rights holders to sell their event sponsorships well in advance, and give their major sponsors a contractual first option to buy sponsorship of the event’s TV coverage. World Rugby been exemplary in this respect, and as a result one of the Worldwide Partners, Land Rover, has exercised their contractual option to become a co-sponsor of ITV’s RWC coverage. Similarly, our client SSE was only able to buy the other ITV broadcast sponsor position after the other RWC Worldwide Partners passed on the opportunity and it went to the open market.

All very orderly. But there was nothing like that in place for RWC 1991. Back then, the ITV broadcast sponsorship was open to all from the off, and taken to market at the same time as the event sponsorships. The broadcast sponsorship sold relatively quickly, whereas most of the event sponsorships were eventually sold at the last minute.

Compared to today, it was chaotic.

Two events above all led to this happening.

The first was the organising committee’s mysterious decision to award the tournament’s commercial rights lock, stock and barrel to a (now long-defunct) company called CPMA. This proved to be disastrous in many ways, not least in relation to sponsorship. CPMA priced each RWC event sponsorship at a deluded £2m, got knocked back by the market, and never recovered. Although Heinz (then run by former Irish rugby international Tony O’Reilly) signed up in 1990 for £1million, there were no other takers, and as a result CPMA inevitably became a price-taker reduced to doing last-minute deals: seven of the eight RWC 1991 event sponsors signed up in the six months prior to the tournament (I was on the buying side of two of these deals) for an average of around £300,000 each, including three in the last month.

The second was ITV’s coup in 1989 of winning the exclusive UK TV rights to RWC 1991, with a bid of £3million which the BBC could not, or would not, match: great business for ITV when you consider that the tournament was a big TV hit (over 13 million watched the England-Australia Final on ITV) and that this success paved the way for ITV to retain the rights to the RWC to this day. And even before the 1991 tournament started, ITV knew they were certain to make a profit when Sony bought the RWC broadcast sponsorship for £2million – two-thirds of what ITV paid for the rights.

This also turned out to be very good business for Sony, as David Pearson, Sony’s UK MD at the time, later recalled:

‘Various [Rugby World Cup] opportunities were presented to Sony including [being] one of eight named sponsors of the competition itself. However, what I felt was of much more interest was the opportunity to become the unique sponsor of the [ITV] broadcast rights…I decided to only sponsor the broadcasting and leave the event sponsorship to others…I believed that far more people would watch the matches on TV than in the stadia and I did not like the idea of sharing sponsorship with seven other parties. So it proved. The majority of people believed that Sony had actually been the event sponsor, giving rise to allegations by the official event sponsors that Sony had ambushed the competition. But that was false. We had chosen legitimately from the choices put to us by the agency representing the World Cup organisers and [ITV].’

I couldn’t agree more: Sony did nothing wrong. They took a brave decision on a new tournament and a new advertising format – paying, let’s not forget, far more than any of the event sponsors – and reaped the rewards. Ambush it may have been, but it was an officially-sanctioned and enabled ambush: the responsibility was wholly CPMA’s owing to their mismanagement of the commercial rights.

As to the ‘allegations by the official event sponsors’, my strong impression at the time was that most of this was driven by Heinz, who were particularly aggrieved: not only had they been undercut by CPMA’s fire-sale of the other event sponsorships, but they’d also seen the main benefit of being the first sponsor to sign up – the highest level of brand association with the tournament – blown away by Sony. (It’s perhaps not entirely coincidental that Heinz has eschewed major sponsorship ever since).

So all in all a painful lesson for the RWC, and a wake-up call for sports rights holders and brands everywhere about how sponsorships should be bought and sold around major events.

But I don’t want to leave you with a negative impression of RWC 1991 on or off the field: quite the opposite. The tournament was a huge success and left behind some very significant legacies.

It turbo-charged the UK sports marketing industry, accelerating its skills and giving it its first experience of activating the multi-sponsor major event model which was becoming the worldwide norm. Without that experience, for example, I have no doubt that five years later Euro 1996 would not have have been the huge success that it was off the field for sponsors in the UK.

But above all RWC 1991 was a watershed moment for rugby’s profile, which took off and never looked back. Quite simply, the tournament electrified the country. Everybody was talking about it, everybody was watching it, and especially in the week of the Final, it was everywhere – back pages, front pages and everything in between. It was glorious.

Here’s hoping for more of the same over the next couple of months. Good luck to everyone involved with RWC 2015.

#ChangeBrazil: The Implications For Brands & Sponsorship

by Bruno Scartozzoni and Guilherme Guimarães

As Tom Jobim, the great Brazilian musician and composer said, “Brazil is not for beginners”.

When Brazil entered the new democratic period in the mid 1980s, it started to change quickly. Fernando Henrique Cardoso, the intellectual president from the social democrat party, took control of hyperinflation, opened the Brazilian economy, reduced government participation in the economy and started important reforms in order to rationalize the state. This was essential to the next phase, when Lula, the charismatic president from the labour party, created all kinds of social programs, giving power of purchase to poor people for the first time in Brazil’s history.

These elements awoke the Brazilian internal market of people hungry for consumption, and, in simple words, that’s the reason why the 2008 global crisis didn’t hit Brazil as hard as it did the rest of the world. And then, suddenly, Brazil was on everybody’s radar, for successful World Cup and Olympics bids.


Now comes the bad part of this story.

Despite the economic progress of the last 20 years, our politicians did not achieve other important goals desired by Brazilians.

In contrast to our status as the sixth biggest economy in the world, our public services, especially health, education and security, are at the opposite end of the scale. Add to this corruption scandals with no prosecutions and one of the most unequal distributions of wealth in the world and you have the full picture.

The Protests

On 3 June a small leftist group called MPL – Movimento Passe Livre (Free Transport Movement) – which campaigns for free public transport in Brazil’s cities, started protests when the new São Paulo mayor announced a R$0,20 (US$0,09) raise in bus, subway and train ticket prices. To start with, most of the population didn’t care less about it, but each day the campaigners managed to congregate more and more people.

The turning point came on June 13, when policemen treated the protesters with disproportionate force, which triggered the population to use the R$0.20 increase as a symbol for something much bigger. It started to represent the poor public services, corrupt politicians, and the threat of hyper inflation. And just like the Occupy Movement and the Arab Spring, social media played a crucial role in scaling the protests and the protest ecosystem: suddenly politics became the only subject that mattered on Facebook and Twitter, which is really new for Brazil.

Coincidentally (or not) it all peaked at the beginning of the 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup.

For some time Brazilians had been saying in a resigned way ‘Imagina na Copa’, meaning ‘If it’s this bad now, imagine what it will be like during the World Cup’. Looking back, with the benefit of hindsight, it’s not surprising this grew into the protests.

The cost of the new and re-built World Cup stadiums had steadily risen from initial estimates and is more than the last three World Cups combined. They are being paid for by public money, in contrast to the promise, when Brazil won the right to stage the World Cup, that they would be privately funded. Add to that that other improvements linked to the World Cup and promised by government like new subway lines will not be ready by 2014, together with the poor reputations of the CBF and FIFA, and you have a time bomb.

It exploded on June 17, with protests in every major Brazilian city, which are now happening every day and night. In the streets and on social media, people started saying Brazil not only wants stadiums, but also health and education to “FIFA standards”.


It’s difficult to predict how and when #ChangeBrazil will end. Ticket raises are being cancelled by the minute, and the President has promised new infrastructure investment and a referendum on political reform, but people are going to the streets anyway. It’s the biggest social movement in the country’s recent history, and probably the first one above party political interests. As the population is claiming, it is democratic, mostly peaceful (until now) and beautiful!

The most visible impact of the protests on brands is that some of the protests’ most-used slogans have been adapted from recent brand campaigns.

Johnnie Walker’s ‘O Gigande Acordou’ (‘The giant is awake’) campaign showed the famous Sugar Loaf Mountain standing up and walking. The line was a reference to Brazilians’ commonly-held view that Brazil is a giant sleeping eternally.

Fiat used ‘Vem Pa Rua’ (‘Come To The Streets’) as its line in a football-themed campaign to ambush the Confederations Cup (they are not FIFA sponsors).

And Vick, the cough drops brand, were also trying to hijack the Confederation Cup, by promoting the hashtag #chupaessa (#suckthis) on Twitter.

As soon as the protests started, people h-jacked these brand slogans, all of which became part of the movement, used in placards on the streets, and on Facebook and Twitter.

There are also examples of brands actively using #ChangeBrazil in their communication.

In fact, almost everyone is doing something about it on Facebook, most of them being more conservative, with generic patriotic posts.

Stores near Paulista Avenue, the epicenter of #ChangeBrazil, are using the movement’s elements in their displays. Store owners said that they are trying to engage with the moment and avoid looting.

However, the most interesting #ChangeBrazil ‘activation’ so far has been by Spoleto, a big Italian fast food chain from Grupo Trigo, who license Domino’s Pizza in Brazil. They released a manifesto on their Facebook fanpage, basically saying that they would be opening that space for political discussion, and any brand activation would would be ceased for a week.


The discussion in advertising forums is about the possibility of brands taking a clear stand. Should they? Fiat thought it was better to leave the conversation and ended their campaign ‘as planned’ on June 22. Spoleto went the other way.

It will be interesting as well to see which way Brahma will go. The beer brand, which is a World Cup sponsor, was one of the few sponsors meaningfully activating the World Cup association in Brazil, and the only one positioning itself around discussions of the World Cup being good or bad for the country. Last year they released a very emotional and positive campaign telling Brazilians to care less about problems and imagine the party that will take place in 2014. It was a bold move, and divided public opinion.

Will they stand for this message after #ChangeBrazil? It’s another question impossible to predict, but they could broaden the optimistic message. “Imagine the party. Imagine a new (better) country.”



FIFA, Big Sport and The Protests

As #ChangeBrazil is partly a reaction to the government’s astronomic spending on the World Cup, many in the international media have questioned Brazilians’ attitude to the World Cup (especially) and the Olympics.

In fact, most Brazilians don’t think the World Cup and the Olympics are the problem. Most dreamed about hosting a World Cup again, and the Olympics are welcome too. Winning the bids is a proof that the world is finally taking us seriously, and it’s very nice for everyone’s ego!

The problem is how the events were ‘sold’ to the Brazilian public, the reality of our infrastructure versus the huge spending on the World Cup, and, as David Owen wrote recently, the evident complacency of FIFA and ‘Big Sport’.

As probably everyone in the world knows now, FIFA has got its PR strategy totally wrong in Brazil, notably when Sepp Blatter told protestors that they should not link their grievances to football, whilst at the same time Neymar was so visibly supporting the protests, and Paolo Andre, the former Corinthians player, recalled that football had been used as a tool of mass control in the past, but now it was the people’s turn to use sport to call attention to their demands.

From here, it’s difficult to see how FIFA can recover its image in Brazil in time for the World Cup, which obviously has big implications for all the FIFA sponsors, who’ll now need to re-think their activation strategies in Brazil.

#ChangeBrazil: 10 Action Points For Brands & Sponsorship




1. Brazil’s sense of its identity is changing very fast, and more than ever before, brands – both Brazilian and international – will need to listen to consumers and re-think their positioning and messaging. Brazilian values have always been attached to happiness, being easygoing, hard-working and, of course, the ultimate clichés: samba, beaches and football. This kind of thing still reflects what Brazil is, but June 2013 has changed it, evolved it, and made it much more complex.2. An example is what’s happening now. People still care about the performance of the Brazilian team in the Confederations Cup, but conversations in bars are split between football and politics, and this is new, very new.

3. Now it’s clear that Brazilians are deeply concerned about social issues, which means that brands will need to increase their CSR efforts, especially if they are going to try to wave the Brazilian flag . Those that already have strong CSR credentials have a big advantage: those that don’t have to move very, very fast to have permission to do business in Brazil, let alone marketing.

4. There is lots of white space to integrate sports with CSR in Brazil. We expect to see a big increase in sponsorship of social development programmes and Paralympic sports, for example, but there’s plenty of room in other causes too.

5. CSR campaigns don’t need to be dull. As we wrote recently, there have been some amazing campaigns fusing sport and CSR in Brazil in the last year or so, one of which recently won one of the top awards in Cannes.

6. Celebrities who are out of touch with #ChangeBrazil are a real risk for brands. The untouchables Pele and Ronaldo lost huge credibility with Brazilians after poorly chosen words about the protests – although to be fair Ronaldo’s were said in 2011. Conversely, others such as David Luiz, Dani Alves, and volleyball player Bruno Resende are in the ascendant after stating they were worried about their performance, but that they were proud and concerned about the Brazilians on the streets.

7. Naming rights sponsorship has started to gain momentum this year and looks likely to keep growing. But brands will be wary of the downsides of associating themselves with ‘FIFA’ stadiums, especially the three potential white elephants in Brasília, Cuiaba and Manaus.

8. Brazilians have discovered social media, especially Facebook and Twitter, as the modern Agora, and that has huge implications and opportunities for brands in Brazil, who activate sponsorships very little in social channels compared to traditional media, especially TV.

9. FIFA sponsors will need to work harder than anybody, but especially in social as their fanpages are suffering daily attacks by consumers.

10. Olympic sponsors have a big advantage. They can watch and learn from FIFA sponsors’ efforts next year, and adapt accordingly for Rio 2016. But how long will it be before the protests turn their attention from World Cup budgets and FIFA to Rio 2016′s budgets and the IOC?


Bruno and Guilherme are partners at Ativa Esporte, the Brazilian sports marketing consultancy which is Synergy’s partner in Brazil.