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Paddy Power’s Save Our Shirt campaign offers positive message but struggles to balance risk and reward

  • Irish bookmaker partnering with five UK football clubs to ‘unsponsor’ kits as part of Save Our Shirt campaign
  • Launch of initiative through stunt kit in friendly fixture leaves Huddersfield Town with £50,000 fine – 12.5 per cent of total sponsorship fee
  • Paddy Power hopes to convince more sponsors to join campaign, citing impressive brand awareness and consideration figures in early stages 

It was the marketing success story of the summer, the sponsorship executive’s holy grail: an activation that genuinely crosses over into the mainstream, generating exposure on the back pages and social media engagement far beyond the fanbase of the property involved.

In the case of Irish bookmaker Paddy Power’s ‘unsponsorship’ of English Championship football side Huddersfield Town, that exposure was, of course, carefully calculated; measured to create disbelief, shock, and, finally, reflection among football fans. 

The story began unfolding on the morning of July 15, 2019, when Huddersfield announced Paddy Power as its new front-of-shirt sponsor for the 2019-20 season. Immediately, eyebrows were raised: Paddy Power has become notorious for its left-field and provocative marketing campaigns and, at times, it can appear that its brand identity is based on the mantra ‘there’s no such thing as bad publicity’. 

Those eyebrows were raised further when Huddersfield revealed its shirts for the season two days later: emblazoned with the logo of its new sponsor covering the entire front of the shirt, from top left to bottom right, in a sash design. The initial reaction, remembers Lee Price, Paddy Power’s head of PR, was “a wave of negativity” which quickly morphed into incredulity, as people delved into obscure FA regulations about the size of sponsors’ logos on shirts and fans insisted it had to be a hoax.

Later that same day, when Huddersfield appeared in the kit for a pre-season friendly away at Rochdale, Price says the reaction shifted again, to: “Oh my God, I think it might actually be real.”

An alternate, even more extreme version of the hoax shirt, created for Huddersfield’s away kit.

Supporters were left to stew until the morning of July 19, when Huddersfield revealed the real kit: a sponsorless shirt, carrying only the club crest and the logo of its manufacturer, Umbro. “In an era of multiple brands emblazoned on kits, Paddy Power is urging clubs to stop their shirts being treated as billboards,” read a statement from the bookmaker revealing the true nature of the campaign. “This season, Paddy Power will sponsor Huddersfield Town by unsponsoring them – relinquishing the front of shirt space they’re entitled to as part of their role as title sponsors.” Launching the ‘Save Our Shirt’ campaign, Paddy Power said it was “calling on sponsors to stop bastardising football shirts”.

By the end of the following week, Paddy Power had announced that it would ‘unsponsor’ four additional British teams for the 2019-20 season: English clubs Macclesfield Town and Southend United, Scottish Premiership outfit Motherwell, and Welsh side Newport County. 

Paddy Power twist

The campaign began life at global sports agency Octagon, which devised the concept and presented it to Paddy Power towards the end of summer 2018. The bookmaker’s marketing team immediately fell for the idea of ‘unsponsoring’ a team – Price recalls that “the second I heard it I thought, ‘this is perfect for us’” – but initially struggled with converting it creatively and producing a bold enough activation.

“We had an initial bridge to cross which was simply that it’s a bit nice, or could be perceived as a bit try-hard,” says Price. “We needed to give it that Paddy Power twist.” After working with Octagon over a period of months, Paddy Power eventually bought the concept and gave it over to its in-house advertising agency, VCCP. It was VCCP which was responsible for the idea of launching the campaign with a fake kit bearing a logo so outrageous that it would draw attention to precisely the cause Save Our Shirt was conceived to highlight. 

“We knew we had to make a noise of it,” says Price, “but it also gave it some context. The pre-launch stuff, the fake shirt, actually wearing it in the match: that was all done to shine a light on the issue of shirt sponsors in football. We had to make the fans say, ‘hang on, they’re taking the piss out of us here’, which was all building towards the reveal of the fake shirt and the campaign which was saying, ‘yeah, sponsors are taking the piss out of clubs, just like we did this week’.”

That, he says, was the missing piece which made the campaign feel “more like a punchy Paddy Power message, actually based on true insight and understanding of what fans are feeling, rather than just being a ‘nice thing’”. Once that was in place, Paddy Power went to market with the idea in March, “which it turned out was quite late for finding sponsorship opportunities.” 

It was a stroke of good fortune that Huddersfield, with its relegation from the Premier League pending, had not by then signed a shirt sponsor for the coming season. The club ended up being a “perfect fit” for what Paddy Power was trying to achieve. 

The campaign has proven popular with fans, especially after Paddy Power ran a “shirt amnesty” allowing supporters to trade in old shirts carrying the previous sponsors’ logo for a new, unbranded version. (Ben Early/Getty Images)

“Getting them on board was hugely important because they’re a historic club; they’re in a high-profile moment, having just come down from the Premier League; they’re in the Championship, which is awash with sponsors and especially bookie sponsors; and they’re a family club with a really strong local fanbase,” says Price. “So there’s a lot of boxes ticked there.” 

The other important aspect was that Huddersfield was prepared to shoulder the risk involved. Price pitched the campaign to Sean Jarvis, Huddersfield’s commercial director, who “was immediately riffing on the idea, trying to build on it, had suggestions of his own, which is exactly the reaction you want. He wasn’t scared off by the idea of the sash and the outrage it would attract. They had to go through quite a lot that week and you can totally understand why other clubs wouldn’t fancy that spotlight on them.”

Indeed, when Jarvis speaks to SportBusiness, he recalls “an uncomfortable couple of days” during which “I was probably the most hated man in Huddersfield”. But he is insistent that the risk was worth taking and that the campaign is something Huddersfield is proud to be a part of, arguing that these kinds of activations can help keep the club in the public eye even despite losing the global audience of England’s top division. There are, he explains, “a lot of synergies between us and Paddy Power. It’s a challenger brand in its market and so are we; we’re not one of the big boys of the Premier League, so we’re always looking for opportunities to develop and generate that exposure and interest”.

Six weeks after the Rochdale friendly, the FA confirmed that it was fining Huddersfield £50,000 for the shirt stunt, which broke the strict rules it has in place around the size and dimensions of shirt sponsors. That fine was equivalent to 12.5 per cent of the total £400,000 sponsorship fee, according to SportBusiness Sponsorship figures. In a statement given immediately after the announcement of the fine, Huddersfield accepted it had breached the regulations and said it would not be appealing the sanction, adding that it would not comment any further on the matter. 

Despite mixed messages emerging at the time – including a claim that Huddersfield had asked the referee to ban them from wearing the shirt for the game, before Paddy Power said that failure to take to the field in the kit would represent a breach of contract – Jarvis and Price are insistent that both parties were aware of the potential risks of the stunt, but agreed that it was necessary to ensure a successful and prominent launch of the Save Our Shirt initiative.

Risk versus reward

The campaign has certainly succeeded in its goal to provoke debate. Inspiring headlines such as ‘Was Huddersfield Town’s fake shirt stunt perfect PR by Paddy Power?’ and ‘Was Paddy Power’s Huddersfield sponsorship stunt worth it?’ from trade titles and mainstream newspapers alike, it is hard to recall the last time a sponsorship activation broke into the mainstream conversation like this.

Much of the controversy surrounding the stunt has stemmed from within the sponsorship industry itself; some of it unsurprising, given the target of the campaign, but much of it out of genuine concern about how Save Our Shirt would actually play out beyond its initial launch phase – and who would benefit. As one industry insider put it: “It’s clear what’s in this for Paddy Power. But there’s a lot of risk for Huddersfield, and it’s not clear what they’re gaining from this above and beyond a regular shirt sponsorship deal, which comes without any of the associated risks.” 

Jarvis remains unconcerned with the criticism on that front, noting that “all kit launches are a risk to an extent. This one was just a bigger risk. But behind the scenes, we knew what the end goal was and that there was always going to be a positive outcome”. As well as launching the Save Our Shirt campaign, which Jarvis says is playing very well with Huddersfield’s fanbase, the sash shirts were auctioned off after the Rochdale game, with the proceeds of £30,000 donated to three local charities, with whom Huddersfield will continue to work throughout the season.

Other benefits have been more immediately tangible to the club. As of the start of September, sales of 2019-20 replica kits were on a par with the numbers posted by this stage in 2017-18, the year Huddersfield made its debut in the Premier League and saw a huge boost in retail receipts as a result. Compared with Huddersfield’s last season in the second tier three years ago, shirt sales are up around 200 per cent, says Jarvis – evidence, to those behind the Save Our Shirt campaign, at least, of fans’ preference for unbranded merchandise.

Jarvis adds that Huddersfield’s social engagement is where the club has seen the biggest boost. The launch of Huddersfield’s Premier League kit for 2018-19 received almost 250,000 unique impressions on social media; the official launch of the 2019-20 kit hit six million. 

The gambling industry, too, was left nonplussed by the campaign launch, which comes at a time when the sector in the UK has been on a charm offensive to regrow its reputation through initiatives such as the whistle-to-whistle ban on gambling adverts during games and the ongoing ‘When the fun stops, stop’ campaign. 

In the same week that the FA confirmed that it would fine Huddersfield for the shirt stunt, the Football Supporters Association and GambleAware released the results of a survey which found that only 10 per cent of football fans felt their clubs were doing enough to educate supporters about the risks of gambling, only 13 per cent agreed that they are, or would be, happy with their club having a gambling sponsor, and 84 per cent of fans feel that gambling’s relationship with football has gone too far. With 61 per cent of Premier League and Championship teams wearing bookmakers’ branding on their shirts for the 2019-20 season, critics such as Brian Chappell of campaign group Justice for Pundits have accused Paddy Power of “insensitivity” and said the stunt was “bad news for the industry all round.” 

For Price’s part, he argues that Save Our Shirt can play a significant role in helping to promote responsible gambling by drawing attention to football kits as one of the primary sources of advertising inventory for betting companies. “The ‘target’, as it were, of Save Our Shirt was always sponsors in general,” he says. “But we’d be naive, or just liars, to try and claim that we weren’t aware of the situation with bookmakers on shirts. Huddersfield last year were sponsored by a bookie I’d never heard of [Chinese online betting company Ope Sports], I couldn’t tell you what it said on their shirts. We really do think this can help to draw attention to that kind of mindless proliferation of bookie sponsors.”

Long-term targets

Question marks continue to hang over the campaign, particularly when it comes to issues of longevity. While the initial sash shirt and reveal both generated huge levels of visibility and engagement for Paddy Power, and to a lesser extent for its partner clubs, the challenge will be in maintaining interest and relevance throughout the season – especially doing so in a way that respects the stated aims of Save Our Shirt.

Price says that the brand will continue to promote the campaign through both long-term tactical plans as well as more reactive activations. An example of the latter was seen during Newport County’s League Cup clash with West Ham, where Paddy Power used LED banners to poke fun at both the Premier League team and its sponsor, rival bookmaker Betway.

All five deals so far signed as part of the campaign are for one year with an option to extend for a further year and, while Price argues that a campaign like this can’t be measured in traditional terms, whether those extensions are triggered and further clubs signed will surely depend on how much of a return on its investment Paddy Power sees.

Paddy Power used Newport County’s League Cup match against West Ham to promote the Save Our Shirt campaign.

“As a brand marketing team, we very rarely focus on commercial drivers,” Price says. “I’m sure there are exceptions to this, but we never go, ‘we’re going to do campaign X and that’s going to drive X amount of revenue or X amount of new bets’. We’re not really interested in that; what we’re interested in is brand awareness, brand consideration. For us, it’s more about talkablility, it’s more about sentiment.

“The easiest way to see that it worked is the fact that we trended number one on social media in the UK and Ireland when Huddersfield played in the kit in the friendly, and we trended number one when we pulled the rug and revealed the true campaign.” 

YouGov’s BrandIndex service monitored the response to the campaign and found that not only were engagement levels high – Paddy Power’s ‘attention’ metric grew by a significant 8 per cent over an 11-day period from July 11 to 22 – but that fans had responded positively to Save Our Shirt, with the brand’s ‘consideration’ score, indicating whether respondents are likely to choose a particular brand over its competitors, increasing sixfold over the same period.

Furthermore, since launching the initiative, Price says several clubs have approached him to ask how they can get on board with Save Our Shirt, while he adds that the “ultimate goal” of the campaign would be to convince other brands to start ‘unsponsoring’ their partner clubs’ shirts. 

“I think the insight that we struck upon, together with Octagon, isn’t a Paddy Power thing, it’s a football fan thing,” he says. “So it isn’t our movement. We might have started the conversation, but we did that so that others would join the conversation. It’s for fans and clubs and sponsors together to take it forward, so if another brand who had multiple clubs on their books decided to join us, that’d be great.” 

BrandIndex also showed that the positive response to the Save Our Shirt reveal outweighed the negative reaction to the initial shirt announcement, “which surprised me, actually”, Price says, “because you see so much negativity online. But it just goes again to show the truth of that initial insight. Fans were excited to see a sponsor-free shirt.” 

Both Jarvis and Price indicate that they feel this is justification for the sash stunt, which generated major attention for a campaign which has proven popular with football fans across the board. Whether Save Our Shirt continues to offer benefits to both Paddy Power and its partner clubs will depend on how successfully the brand can continue to balance risk and reward, without compromising the original goals of the campaign.

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