Only time will tell if the unconfirmed reports of a sponsorship deal between Coca-Cola and the Premier League are premature. But a partnership between one of football’s classic global sponsors and the world’s favourite domestic league would be one to watch, and mark another major milestone in Coke’s football strategy in England, on which – full disclosure – I advised them during my time at Synergy.
In 2000, when I began working with Coke, in the shape of Jonathan Ford – then Coke’s GB sponsorship manager, now chief executive of the Football Association of Wales – the brand’s football strategy was at a crossroads.
Coke had enjoyed big brand and business success with Euro ‘96 and the ‘Eat Football, Sleep Football, Drink Coca-Cola’ campaign, which was activated brilliantly, including one of my all-time favourite football ads, ‘Blind Fan'. But having ended their title sponsorship of the League Cup in 1998, Coke was left with three domestic football assets: a partnership with the FA centred on the England team; a partnership with Wembley (then privately-owned) delivering advertising, pouring and promotional rights; and pouring rights deals at most English clubs.
The problem was, none of these deals were delivering what Coke needed, individually or together. The FA sponsorship aligned well with Coke’s Fifa World Cup and Uefa Euro sponsorships, but the England team couldn’t be activated week in, week out – a vital necessity for a domestic asset. Neither could the Wembley deal, as Wembley was about to become a building site. And whilst the club pouring rights gave Coke a valuable presence, these deals were led by the brand’s bottling partners and carried limited promotional rights.
A new strategy was needed. And what we created was based on three key objectives: to get Coke back to being one of one, not one of a crowd; to create a domestic marketing asset which was ‘always on’ during the football season; and above all to give Coke brand equity and credibility in club football which, through the rise of the Premier League, had usurped international football.
These objectives underpinned Coke’s football strategy for the next ten years.
Phase one, in 2001, was to replace the FA and Wembley partnerships with a three-year broadcast sponsorship of ITV’s Premier League highlights show. ITV had snatched the rights from the BBC’s long—running Saturday night Match of The Day programme. (The BBC won them back in 2004).
And phase two, in 2004, was to title sponsor the English Football League, a partnership which ran for six seasons and became famous for two ground-breaking activations: ‘Club Colours’, when – for the first time in history – Coke changed the colours of its iconic logo, to match those of all 72 Football League clubs at their grounds, in Coke’s advertising, and on specially-produced cans; and the ‘Win A Player’ and ‘Buy a Player’ promotions, giving Football League fans – who entered in their millions - the chance to boost their clubs’ transfer budgets by £250,000.
But for all that success, six years later it was inevitable that Coke would step down from the Football League title deal to enable it to focus on activating London 2012 – the Olympics being a sponsorship which, for the host-country business of a global sponsor, demands focus and resources like no other.
Less predictable was that following London 2012, Coke would rely on its World Cup and Euro sponsorships to maintain its football equity in England.
Which might explain the rumoured Premier League partnership. With no major domestic asset to activate throughout the club season, Coke’s football equity in England – a key element of its overall brand equity given how important football is to English consumers – is sure to have declined.
Another influencing factor would be Pepsi’s sponsorship of the Uefa Champions League, likely to have boosted its football brand equity at Coke’s expense, as well as giving it valuable trading currency with retailers – the most important battleground in the cola wars.
So, if the deal is a premature fact rather than a rumour, what could we expect to see?
For Coke, a buy of this size – almost certainly its biggest-ever investment on a UK sports sponsorship – would make it a strategic priority. Winning in retail to drive ROI will be a focus, led by brand activations designed to make the partnership talked-about, credible, and meaningful. How Coke innovates the standard Premier League IP bundle of club logos, tickets and player imagery will be particularly interesting. The Football League sponsorship set a high bar and Coke will want to take it even higher.
For the Premier League, a Coke deal will mean that it has filled the seventh and final slot in its sponsor roster, three years after it moved away from title sponsorship to a multi-partner model.
And for Richard Masters, managing director of the Premier League, it will be a case of déjà vu, having been commercial director of the Football League when Coke became title sponsor in 2004 – a deal which was contracted after a 24-hour, through-the night negotiation between Richard and his commercial and legal teams on one side, and Coke’s then-sponsorship manager and myself on the other.
But that’s another story for another time.
Tim Crow has been at the forefront of sports marketing for thirty years. Formerly CEO of Synergy, he now advises a range of companies at the intersection of sport, marketing, media and technology. Follow him @shaymantim.