The Volvo Ocean Race, formerly the Whitbread Round the World Race, is professional sailing’s longest event. It is one of just a few championships designated by the sport’s governing body, World Sailing, as a 'special event', alongside the America’s Cup and the Extreme Sailing Series.
A nine-month race, the Volvo visits 10 key markets around the world (stopovers), crosses almost every ocean and features a high-intensity format with crews of eight (plus an onboard reporter), sailing identical, high-tech 65ft yachts.
Chinese vehicle maker Dongfeng Commercial Vehicles (DFCV), under its Dongfeng Trucks brand, chose the Volvo Ocean Race as its first global sponsorship platform and drew in two supporting Chinese sponsors – Aeolus Tyres, part of the Pirelli group, and the City of Shiyan, a tourist destination in northern China.
The campaign exceeded all expectations both on and off the water. On the water, Dongfeng Race Team led for a good part of the race, won two of the nine legs and scored five podium finishes, to finish third overall. This was despite racing with a mixed crew of mainly French offshore veterans and inexperienced Chinese sailors who had been trained by the team.
Off the water, the campaign scored well across most media channels despite a limited budget and not winning the race overall. Outstanding money-can’t-buy B2B experiences underpinned this success.
DFCV and its Dongfeng Trucks brand, was looking to highlight its first steps onto the global stage – “Chinese Dongfeng, Global Dongfeng” being the tagline for this division of the Dongfeng Group. Created in 1968, the company is the second-biggest automobile manufacturer in China. At group level it recently acquired a 14 per cent stake in PSA (Peugeot- Citroën), as well as being a manufacturing partner to Nissan, Renault, PSA and Kia in China.
Dongfeng Trucks had started its expansion beyond China but had yet to support this with any substantive marketing effort. As of 2013, almost no state-owned enterprise in China had used a sports sponsorship to promote their brand and the only major sponsorships had been classic ones from Yingli Solar (Fifa) and Le Novo (IOC).
With networks and partnerships being put in place in a number of target markets for Dongfeng Trucks, a joint venture with the Volvo Group was established. An early strategic goal of the new entity was to begin projecting the Dongfeng Trucks brand in these markets. The Volvo Ocean Race – jointly owned by Volvo Group and Volvo Cars – was identified as the ideal vehicle.
The race visits 10 markets through race stopover ports that are of direct interest or supporting importance to Dongfeng Trucks. While South Africa (Cape Town stopover) is an example of the former, France (Lorient stopover) fits the latter category. Here no truck sales were expected but, at Group level, Dongfeng is an investor in the French car manufacturer, PSA.
Top professional sailing events today offer a powerful combination of a solid communications platform and money-can’t-buy client experiences on the water. The Volvo Ocean Race offers a nine-month storyline of elite international sport that knits together a series of media and hospitality events in each market usually focused on four intense days of activity at a stopover port, leading up to each leg start.
For Dongfeng this was a first venture into sports sponsorship, beyond some tennis tournaments in the company’s headquarters city of Wuhan. The project was its first contact with sailing, a growing but still minority sport in China, and indeed a key goal of the campaign was helping to establish offshore sailing in the country.
The sponsorship was not just a launch pad for the brand; it proved a learning platform for the management team at Dongfeng Trucks. The impact was felt on everything from how to communicate internationally, to client engagement, hospitality standards and using social networks other than Chinese domestic favourites like WeChat. It was also a learning experience on how to harness the emotions and passion associated with sport, to develop links and relationships with existing and new clients.
Aeolus Tyres, a semi-private company, for whom Dongfeng is a key client, came on board to support the campaign as a Platinum Sponsor. With a developed global network, they were able to activate well at most stopovers, bringing in clients in large numbers for several days of business seminars and contact with the sailing project.
Speaking in Alicante at the race start, where Aeolus entertained more than 80 guests from Europe and China, Thomas Wohlgemuth, general manager Western Europe for Aeolus, identified a clear strategy to use the race to build the brand with customers and clients. “My team and I will accompany the race and all involved,” he said. “Our guests are very excited and share my views. It seems that we have succeeded in bringing the Aeolus brand, but also the products, a little closer to many people.”
Later in the race Wohlgemuth’s counterpart in the US, Mike Leverington, spoke about how the campaign had gone beyond a routine commercial sponsorship. “As a sponsor, how could you not be proud of a team that came back from near disaster on (leg five) to be a competitive contender for winning the next leg?” he said. “Watching the race and tuning in every three hours, I find the Dongfeng race story to be very motivating because they are exceeding everyone’s expectations.”
- Naming rights to the team and boat – the name 'Dongfeng' was cited in almost every media report.
- The team Volvo Ocean 65 racing yacht was fully branded with Dongfeng colours and logo. A quarter of the branding space on the sails was reserved for supporting partners, Aeolus and City of Shiyan.
- Pre-race activation rights with the boat, skipper (Charles Caudrelier of France), crew and the Chinese sailing squad.
- Comprehensive client engagement and hospitality rights during the race. This included places on board Dongfeng during Pro-Am races at stopovers, inport races and leg start sequences, plus places on a Dongfeng-branded Extreme 40 catamaran at stopover ports.
- Media and communication rights including press conferences, media experiences on board, backed by the Volvo Ocean Race media team supporting the team’s efforts throughout the race.
- Pavilion rights in the Volvo Ocean Race public village at every stopover.
There had been two 'Chinese' campaigns in the Volvo Ocean Race prior to Dongfeng, featuring either some Chinese financial backing or a token Chinese sailor on board. Neither was embraced by the Chinese population or the media. Dongfeng went further in developing a core Chinese audience, generating extensive coverage of its selection and training programme of its Chinese sailors and conducting an unprecedented pre-race visit to China by the boat and crew. This was facilitated by supporting partner, Maersk Line shipping.
The exceptional on-the-water performance was another driver in generating coverage, especially in China. The strong start to the race by Dongfeng – which led overall after two podium finishes in the first two legs – and a leg-three victory into the Chinese stopover at Sanya, helped propel the campaign to front page news and television broadcasts across China when the race arrived there in February 2015. This was new ground for Chinese sailing and for the Volvo Ocean Race remembering that, for both Volvo Group and Volvo Cars, China is a key market.
There was virtually no specific PR activation budget for this campaign however the Chinese story and the race crew of relatively inexperienced Chinese sailors captured the imagination of journalists from The New York Times and Bloomberg BusinessWeek, to El Pais and The Daily Mail to the Shanghai Daily and China Daily.
Another big media hit was a spontaneously-identified opportunity to hoist a visiting Miss World (Rolene Strauss) to the top of Dongfeng’s mast during the Sanya stopover. Strauss’s mast-top selfie was widely picked up by television, print and online media across the globe. Others who climbed Dongfeng’s mast included H.R.H. Prince Carl Philip of Sweden, Laura Lopez, aka Miss Santa Catarina 2014, and the explorer Mike Horn.
At stopovers the campaign based its commercial activity around a dedicated two-storey hospitality centre – the Dongfeng Pavilion – where Dongfeng Trucks and its strategic partners entertained local clients and customers and organised activities involving sailors and guests.
A priority was to get as much local publicity as possible and activations ranged from selfies to school visits by sailors to talk about the race. The team entertained 4,765 hospitality guests, including 350 who sailed on board Dongfeng and 635 on the Extreme 40. We also organised 120 guest boat tours of Dongfeng at the dockside.
Many of our guests had no background in sailing. At the Abu Dhabi stopover, clients and guests included visitors from the six Gulf Cooperation Council nations plus Pakistan, Lebanon and India. Some of these guests developed a strong connection with the team over many months, multiplying the value of a sponsorship. The clients and employees were drawn into the competitive highs and lows and become part of the team.
The Dongfeng Race Team far exceeded its goals in sporting, communications and commercial terms. The project was late starting – July 2013 – and entailed risk and reward in equal measure. The chances of failure both on and off the water were high.
At the start, critics predicted it would be a regular backmarker as it was crewed by untested Chinese sailors for the first time at Grand Prix level. In fact, the team won two legs outright and, despite a dismasting in the Southern Ocean, finished on the podium in third place overall out of seven.
Off the water, the campaign was also successful. As the official Volvo Ocean Race 2014-15 Race Report said: “Dongfeng Race Team crossed the startline with one key goal – to write the story of Chinese offshore sailing. They achieved that aim and far more, building the highest media value of all the teams and inspiring coverage throughout the world thanks to their open and courageous approach to storytelling.”
Dongfeng topped the tables for cumulative television audience and was second in the number of broadcasts per team. It was ranked first in the number of online news articles generated by the team and was second in total number of print articles generated. It ranked third in Twitter mentions and its skipper, Charles Caudrelier, was the second-most covered personality in the race after Ian Walker, skipper of race winners, Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing.
'Soft' wins are harder to measure, but were equally important to the sposnor. The team was among the 'bestloved' entries in the race, reflecting its accessible approach to communications. As a Chinese brand aggressively expanding globally, this soft image – unpurchasable with pure advertising – was viewed by Dongfeng as a key success of the campaign.
The sponsorship has also helped to inspire a new generation of Chinese sailors while demonstrating to Dongfeng Trucks and its supporting partners, Aeolus Tyres and the City of Shiyan, that they could successfully market their brands to a growing global customer base through the Volvo Ocean Race. Hundreds of B2B guests were also entertained at stopovers.
A third goal was to make an impression on the Chinese public media and in that respect the campaign more than delivered.
Dongfeng has now given an informal green light for a second campaign in the next Volvo Ocean Race in 2017-18. This time the focus will be on training more Chinese sailors and blending together another top-quality multinational crew that can deliver results on and off the water. The twin goals, as before, will be to promote Dongfeng in key markets abroad and to drive forward the sport of offshore ocean racing and sailing in general in China.