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BT’s ‘Beyond Limits’ rebrand informs CSR-focused partnerships with Home Nations FAs

(Photo: Anthony Upton/BT)

  • Telecoms firm confirmed partnerships with all four UK football associations last year
  • BT “undergoing a transformation in terms of positioning” and is using partnerships to communicate new brand purpose 
  • ‘4-3-3’ strategy focuses on para, grassroots and women’s football, aiming to get more people involved in the game at all levels

Telecoms giant BT has unveiled the strategy that will underpin its sponsorships of all four UK Football Associations, with Marc Allera, chief executive of the group’s consumer division, describing it as “one of the most ambitious partnerships in football history”. 

The brand confirmed five-year tie-ups with each of the governing bodies for the sport in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales over the course of 2019, becoming the lead partner of all four. The deals will see its branding worn on the training equipment of all teams, of all genders, at all age levels, except Northern Ireland’s women, who have an existing shirt sponsor. Its total outlay over the five-year period is estimated by SportBusiness to be in the region of £80m.

BT adopted a new ‘brand purpose’ in 2019, with a greater focus on CRS initiatives (Photo: BT/Anthony Upton)

The sponsorships give BT near-blanket coverage of national football in the UK, with its deal with the English FA also incorporating sponsorship of the St George’s Park technical centre and training complex and, through its mobile brand EE, Wembley Stadium. That four football associations co-exist within a single country is a “unique situation”, says Allera, one which offered BT an unparalleled platform to engage the whole of the UK. 

“BT has historically been involved in lots and lots of small things,” he tells SportBusiness, speaking at a launch event for the campaign in London in February. “But our strategy now is to look at some really big, meaningful partnerships that we can go really deep in. We are a national brand, we want to position ourselves as a national champion and we felt the national game would be an ideal marriage if we could get it right. To be able to work with all of the Home Nations’ FAs is is great for us, because we can talk to the whole country rather than just individual parts of it.”

BT in the community

Beyond the branding opportunity, however, BT has revealed an extensive programme of social and community programmes, tied into the major, company-wide rebrand it carried out last year – its first since 2003 – which saw the company revamp not only its consumer-facing aspects but also its broader aims, placing a greater focus on corporate social responsibility efforts. 

“BT is undergoing a transformation in terms of positioning and really in terms of what we’re trying to stand for as a brand,” Philip Rogers, head of sponsorship at BT, tells SportBusiness. The rebrand, he says, “was not just a change of symbol, it was a symbol of change in terms of what we’re doing as a company, and we were looking for a partnership that would allow us to showcase that. 

“Football is such a great way of doing that. I think [the partnerships] are great platforms for us to really showcase what the brand is all about now to the benefit of, hopefully, millions of people across the UK over the next few years.”

Marc Allera, chief executive of BT’s consumer division (Photo: BT/Anthony Upton)

Titled ‘4-3-3’, the strategy is named for the four FAs, the three communities it will focus on – disability and para football, grassroots, and the women’s game – and the three long-term goals outlined by BT: to develop new technologies enabling new new ways to play and engage with football; create closer football communities and opportunities through new digital initiatives; and to inspire a new generation of girls and women to participate in football.

“In terms of the reach, in terms of scale, in terms of what we wanted to achieve as a company, these were by far the best properties available to us,” says Rogers. “The fact that all four FAs were available in the same year was just a real opportunity for us, and it gave us something unlike anything we have, or have ever had, in our portfolio.”

The slogan that accompanied BT’s rebrand was “Beyond Limits”, a mantra Rogers says permeates the company’s wider strategy, particularly when it comes to developing para football and getting more women into the game: “It’s about removing limitations and barriers to reaching your potential…I think you can see that through all our plans, through the grassroots and through the para work that we’re doing, it epitomises removing barriers for people who, for the moment, cannot play football. 

“Using our tools and assets – whether it’s the innovation, technology, the network, being able to create an ecosystem of different partners, to take down those barriers and actually enable people to play football. I think that these partnerships epitomise what we are trying to stand for as a brand, in terms of, there are no limits, just keep pushing forward.”

Alignment of purpose

Rather than focus on what the deals offer to BT in terms of exposure, Allera is keen to highlight what BT can offer to its partners and to fans, especially given the elevated position of being lead partner of all four FAs. BT’s reach is already such that, he suggests, the partnership is more beneficial to the FAs in their roles as custodians of the game and in helping their work in communities than it is to BT itself. 

The activation unites all four of the UK-based FAs to help grassroots, para and women’s football across the country (Photo: BT/Anthony Upton)

“We’re not a brand that has an awareness challenge”, he says, noting that promoting the company’s new brand purpose is more important than reaching more households. “Branding for us is about action, not exposure. Everyone knows the name BT, and this is not about exposure for us – it’s how we can use the power of football, and the power of BT, to change lives.

“We’re a pretty unique company in this country. We employ over 100,000 people directly and tens of thousands more indirectly. One in every two households in the country has a direct connection with BT, either through BT itself, through EE or through Plusnet [the company’s wholly-owned consumer broadband subsidiary]. We have the first or second-biggest advertising spend in the country, so we can offer prominence there. And we have a national broadcaster in BT Sport that reaches into millions of homes as well. 

“So there are not many partners who can bring that level of scale and reach in terms of employee base, customer base, plus have a broadcasting arm, plus a network that can help with the digital divide, as well as the ambition we have.”

Jonathan Ford, chief executive of the Football Association of Wales, agrees, noting that he – and his counterparts at the other associations – are increasingly looking for partners who can actively help them in their work, rather than just offer financial incentives in exchange for a badge or logo placement. 

“We’re relatively small-, medium-sized businesses,” Ford tells SportBusiness. “We are nonprofit organisations. And we have a lot of costs associated with the running of a lot of our teams. But primarily, the purpose, the raison d’etre, of a national association is to promote the game, develop the game and protect the game. And I think when you have an active partner like BT that comes on board, you can really focus your efforts.”

Ian Maxwell, chief executive of the Scottish Football Association, echoes Ford, adding: “It has been well-documented that, from a national association perspective, you want to get as many people playing football from as early as possible and for as long as possible. We can only do so much. So we have to work with our partners to ensure that those opportunities and our message go out as wide as possible, and I think BT is the perfect partner in helping us to achieve that.”

A ‘united’ United Kingdom

All stakeholders are keen to emphasise that this partnership is about uniting the country in a single purpose of engaging with different communities through football. Rogers notes that while some individual activations will be region-specific, tailored to where they can have the greatest impact, all areas of the country will receive the same attention and benefits from the schemes and initiatives BT is launching. 

This season has seen betting brand 32Red draw controversy for working with multiple clubs in the English Championship, where it has been accused of showing favouritism towards its bigger partners. A sponsorship that bridges traditional rivalries in the sport is easier to accomplish in the national game than at club level, says Maxwell, because the FAs aren’t competing for the same fans or the same resources. 

Former England and Manchester United star Rio Ferdinand is an ambassador for the 4-3-3 campaign (Photo: BT/Anthony Upton)

“We are national associations, national teams, we have Scottish people who are Scottish supporters,” he says. “We’re not fighting with Northern Ireland for Northern Irish fans. The fact that there will be one partnership across all the Home Nations is actually really powerful because it aligns the UK effectively, it means that we can all do something where we’re all on the same course, we’re all going in the same direction, trying to achieve the same objectives.”

Ford adds that sponsoring all four FAs is a natural decision for a brand like BT, where fans in Wales, for instance, may question why it would invest into English football but not Welsh, were it to selectively sponsor within the same country. “It’s testament to the fact that they see that vision all the way through the United Kingdom,” he says. “When you have a national brand, and they sponsor just one country, it’s always problematic. I think from a fan’s point of view, they see that, and when they see a brand coming on board with all of the Home Nations, then you’re pushing on a very much open door.”

That element, Allera agrees, is essential, largely because the partnerships and the 4-3-3 strategy are far more about engaging with communities and improving people’s lives than they are about the game itself. “We’ve talked a lot about football, but this isn’t just about football,” he says. “Football is a magnet for all sorts of people from all sorts of communities, it’s a platform that we can use to give a greater sense of community. That’s not just about the sport, it’s about bringing people together and giving them skills and confidence in life that they may not have had the chance to before.”

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