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Focused activations | Ben Stokes’ tweet helps Specsavers make the most of its ECB partnership

England Cricketer Jack Leach poses outside the Specsavers in Taunton. (Steven Paston/PA Wire).

  • Opticians brand capitalises on Jack Leach’s performances for England by offering spin-bowler free glasses for life at prompting of team-mate Ben Stokes
  • 2019 Ashes was the culmination of five-year build up of involvement in Test cricket for Specsavers
  • Specsavers uses sponsorship of Test matches to promote eye tests; UltraEdge to promote audiology department

When high-street opticians chain Specsavers signed up to become the title sponsor of this summer’s Ashes series, it is unlikely they imagined receiving a boost to their investment quite like the one provided by England’s all-rounder Ben Stokes.

In the moments after England’s extraordinary victory over Australia at Headingley, when all eyes were on the match-winning hero, Stokes himself had someone else on his mind. Having batted alongside Jack Leach for the final hour, with Leach’s disciplined single-run performance with the bat keeping England in the contest, Stokes took to Twitter to implore Specsavers: “Do yourself a favour and give him free glasses for life.”

Specsavers is responsible for one of the most recognisable advertising slogans in the UK – its long-running “should’ve gone to Specsavers” campaign is so successful it has seeped into the British lexicon. The brand has sponsorships across sport dating back to 2014, when it first partnered with the Association of Cricket Officials. Its strategy for this summer’s Ashes, its first as title sponsor, was meticulously planned out, by both its own internal marketing team, external activation agency CSM and social media agency Tangerine. But between them, they couldn’t have scripted the kind of returns that came from Stokes’ single tweet.

Specsavers’ James Read, right, with Australia’s Steve Smith (Photo: Philip Brown)

Leach had become a cult hero over the course of the summer for taking to the pitch in his spectacles and was regularly seen cleaning them during games. It was already the kind of sponsor synergy that brands can only dream of – an elite athlete organically using a sponsors’ product during a sport’s biggest showcase – even before Stokes sent the Specavers team into quick response mode.

“I was at a friend’s barbecue and we’d been watching on telly,” recalls James Read, Specsavers’ head of sports sponsorship.  “Our agency called and told me about the Stokes tweet. Right there, we were just like: ‘well, we’ve got to do it’.”

Less than an hour later, a tweet was sent in response, confirming that Specsavers would accept Stokes’ request to offer Leach free glasses for life. That, says Read, was “the golden nugget tweet: 98,000 likes, 18,000 retweets, over a thousand comments,” and, of course, further exposure and publicity the next day in the newspapers and across social media. “The extra reach and engagement we received just off the back of Stokes doing that in the dressing room after the game was fantastic.”

Reactivity is key

Stokes’ tweet, says Read, was “completely unprompted, absolutely unscripted,” adding that even if Specsavers had wanted to do something like this, it would have struggled to plan it so perfectly, especially given the planning required for access to the players. But it did show the value, he explains, in leaving room for reactive activations and having a team that is able to respond as things unfold on the pitch.

“We get a number of player appearances through our ECB contract,” says Read, one of which Specsavers had held back precisely in order to be able to continue to leverage its Ashes partnership beyond the end of the series. “Luckily, we had one left over, so obviously we got Jack in. We were able to follow up on the initial activity around the tweet by having him along to the store in Taunton [where Leach’s county side, Somerset, is based], giving him an eye test and giving him his first free glasses. If he comes back in a year and says he wants free glasses, we’ll honour that offer.”

The tweet wasn’t even the first time that summer that Specsavers had reaped the benefits of Leach’s preference for glasses over contact lenses. Just before the Ashes, when Leach posted a surprising 92 in a Test match against Ireland in which most of his teammates struggled, Britain’s best-selling newspaper The Sun responded with a back-page headline that borrowed the “Should’ve Gone to Specsavers” slogan, complete with the company’s logo.

“To have something like that was unprecedented, unheard of branding,” says Read. “Before the Ashes even started, that was a way to reinforce that connection between Specsavers and cricket, and really gave us something to kick off the campaign with.”

Even that wasn’t without risk, however, says Read. “We had to careful to be within our rights, careful around being seen to be associated with one player more than another, because of how those commercial rights work,” he says. “We didn’t have a formal relationship with Jack, so we had to effectively take our opportunities when they came along.”

Maximising those kinds of opportunities is key to Specsavers’ sponsorship strategy. Read says the company’s brand awareness is so high in the UK, and in Australia, it can be difficult to shift the dial on brand awareness and brand visibility. “We need to capitalise on those moments where we suddenly get an even bigger platform. But that definitely had a positive impact,” he says. And while Specsavers couldn’t have planned to end up with free advertising in the country’s most-read tabloid, Read feels that the company’s identification of Test cricket, and its segmentation of its activations in the space, put the brand in a strong position to capitalise on the increased visibility of cricket in the UK this summer.

Specsavers’ Ashes campaign played on the resonances between Test cricket and its own offering as “The Test Experts” (Photo: DarrenStaples/PA Wire)

Title sponsorship, targeted activations

“The great thing about cricket for us is that it has a very hard ball, that is very small, and moves very fast,” says Read. “The natural link between cricket and eyesight is very obvious, and one of our main targets with any of our sponsorships is always to raise awareness around good eye health.”

To that end, Read says, much of Specsavers’ sponsorship portfolio has traditionally focused on match officials. As well as having sponsored the ECB’s umpires since 2014, Specsavers is also the official partner of domestic rugby referees in Ireland, Scotland and Wales. “That really lets us give a lot of promotion to our core product, which is really our eye tests, glasses and contact lenses – essentially making sure that people can see properly,” he says. “There’s a natural link between helping the officials see, helping the experts and making sure they’re equipped to do their jobs, which then enhances the enjoyment of the players, the fans and everyone else involved in the sport. That was our way into cricket and that’s where our relationship with the ECB, and with cricket fans, grew from.”

In 2016, Specsavers moved to become the title sponsor of the domestic County Championship, but it wasn’t until early last year that the brand became “the ECB’s red ball partner”, as Read puts it, signing a two-year deal to add home England Test matches to its portfolio.

England’s Jack Leach gained cult status over the summer for his high-profile performances while wearing glasses. (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images).

“We really stepped it up then, when the brand realised what a big opportunity it was to title sponsor Test cricket,” he says. The opportunity in question arose after specialist bank and asset manager Investec broke its deal early in 2017, leaving a vacancy for a Test partner for the ECB which covered two Test series against England’s biggest historical rivals – India in 2018, and Australia in this year’s Ashes – as well as an ICC World Cup held in the country. While Specsavers was not involved in the latter competition, Read acknowledges that the brand was conscious the World Cup would help to boost the visibility of the sport in the UK.

“It was obviously an enormously successful summer of cricket, both for the sport generally and for us as a brand,” he says. “There’s a whole number of factors that helped. Obviously, just hosting a home World Cup is one. Then England going on to win the thing, in exceptional circumstances, really piqued interest. And then, of course, from my point of view, having a certain bespectacled cricketer from Somerset doing pretty well throughout the series certainly helped our brand, and how we activated around the series.”

Beyond Jack Leach, those activations were often interesting for how granular Specsavers chose to be, targeting individual elements of the game and using them to promote relevant segments of its own business. “We sponsor everything as ‘master brand’, if you like,” Read says, “but underneath all that we have our different areas, some of which align with a different area of Test cricket which we then use to promote that area of the business.

Most straightforwardly, he says, “is the simple double-entendre between Test cricket and the fact that we’re the Test Experts. The ‘Should’ve Gone to Specsavers’ campaign is all about encouraging and reminding people to have their eyes tested, so we really reinforced that through becoming the ECB’s Test partner.”

To build on that, Specsavers and the ECB continued to partner on the “#shouldve Specsavers Moments” series of YouTube videos which they began the previous year, highlighting funny moments from Ashes history, increasing the brand’s reach into the digital space and helping to engage a wider audience on the platform. Some of those videos, which bear Specsavers’ branding throughout, have reached over a million views on YouTube.

Furthermore, Specsavers also added sponsorship of the HawkEye and UltraEdge technologies, used by the match officials to help reach decisions. HawkEye clearly fits into Specsavers’ offering, but UltraEdge – which uses microphones to detect whether a batsman has connected with the ball – was a particularly successful case, Read notes. Alongside consultancy specialists Kantar, Specsavers carried out a review of its summer activities, seeing “a particularly big increase in the spontaneous awareness of Specsavers Audiologists,” Read says, though the company declined to make those numbers public. “We’re obviously known for glasses and eyesight, and a lot of people don’t know that we also offer hearing tests and hearing aids. So it was really pleasing to see the metrics around audiology have a really good boost from the Ashes.”

Both of Specsavers’ ECB title sponsorships expire at the end of this year, and renewal has not been confirmed. But, after a summer in which the game swung back into the mainstream British consciousness, and with the ECB’s new tournament, The Hundred, set to launch next summer with an eye on a mass family audience, Read is confident that the sport will continue to offer a strong platform to brands. “There’s a huge opportunity now for not just the sport’s fans, but the players, young people wanting to be involved and get into cricket,” he says. “The Hundred will be on the BBC and England are world champions, so I think cricket is really well placed to engage a new audience, and that can only be a good thing for the sport and its sponsors.”

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