Dome of Contention

Ninety per cent of the population believe the 758m Millennium Dome is too expensive and most people would prefer the money to be spent on hospitals, public health and education, according to an exclusive survey carried out by NOP for Marketing Week.

Even so, more than a quarter of the adult population – nearly 14 million people – are likely to visit the Dome in Greenwich according to the survey, well above the 12 million target set by the event’s organisers.

The survey of 1,003 adults aged over 15 shows a degree of public ignorance, and scepticism, about the project which the Dome’s organisers, the New Millennium Experience Company (NMEC), will need to work hard to overcome. Recognition of the sponsors backing the celebrations is very low, even though some have already started their marketing programmes. As marketing director Sholto Douglas-Home points out (see box), there is still a lack of awareness about how the millennium celebrations are paid for and what they involve.

The good news for sponsors is that their involvement wins the backing of nearly two-thirds of the population. Twenty-five per cent of respondents strongly agree that: “We should be grateful to companies which sponsor the Dome,” while another 35 per cent agree “a little”. Forty per cent do not agree at all. This surprise support for Dome sponsors is in stark contrast to the 75 per cent of UK adults who thought there were too many brand owners jumping on the World Cup bandwagon in a similar poll on the football tournament (MW July 9 1998).

Elaine Hunt, who worked with NOP to carry out both sets of research, says: “Perhaps people think that if the big companies are paying for the Dome, it will bring down the cost of entry and the amount the public has to pay.”

But recognition of the companies which have pledged sponsorship for the Dome is, as yet, virtually non-existent, according to the survey. The findings contradict evidence by BT – one of the Dome’s 12m sponsors – which claims there is already considerable public awareness of its backing for the project. Tesco, also, has made much of its own 12m contribution, and the 13,000 schools taking part in the Tesco “SchoolNet 2000” local history Internet project intended for the Dome.

The sponsors point out they have yet to launch their sponsorships through PR and advertising campaigns, so the low recognition is “hardly surprising”. Even so, there has been widespread press and TV coverage of the sponsors, yet only five per cent of respondents could name BT, three per cent McDonald’s, and two per cent British Airways, as sponsors. Awareness is higher among ABs – six per cent for BA, seven per cent for BT and five per cent for McDonalds.

The Dome’s organisers say awareness will rise as the marketing programme gets underway, particularly with the launch of the national programme on March 5. For brands to reap the maximum rewards from their involvement, timing will be crucial. As the year progresses, the sponsors are likely to become submerged in the millennium mania which will become almost universal among brands and retailers.

But observers question whether brand building is the main motive for some of the companies getting involved. One sponsorship source says: “For many of the organisations, being a sponsor comes from corporate governance, wanting to be seen as good corporate citizens. The sponsorship decisions seem very politically motivated.”

He questions how seriously some of the sponsors will take the marketing opportunities involved, reasoning that they have made their pledges to help out New Labour and its support for the Dome, and their rewards will come through goodwill from the Government. This could come in the form of waving through takeovers, mergers and other controversial business moves, such as British Aerospace’s merger with GEC and BSkyB’s takeover of Manchester United, plus retailers’ desire for favourable treatment on planning and other issues.

However, this position is strongly contested by NMEC, which says the sponsors include some of the most canny marketers in the UK, who are unlikely to throw their money around. Still, the sponsors have been fairly reserved so far in shouting about their investment.

They argue they are “keeping their powder dry”, for fear of boring the public if they break their campaigns too early. But Matthew Patten, chief executive of M&C Saatchi Sponsorship, says: “If they don’t get on with it, it will get washed away, with everyone competing for the same media coverage. They need to build up a sense of anticipation. They need to jump the gun on other sponsors, and have got to be very strategic rather than waiting to see.”

The survey underlines the difficulty faced by the Dome’s marketers in making it appeal across all sectors of the population. The 75 per cent of Britons who do not plan to visit the venue will have to be convinced that it’s a valuable enterprise anyway; the marketers are selling the wider idea of the millennium celebrations, not just entry tickets for the Greenwich attraction.

The marketing programme broke on Christmas Eve with the first ad campaign through the Dome’s agency, M&C Saatchi. It attempted to sell the idea of the millennium as a date worth celebrating. The research shows that while the Dome may attract the numbers of people it is after, there is also a mood of optimism about the millennium, with 57 per cent looking forward to it as a new beginning. Even so, 40 per cent are worried “things might pack up because of the millennium bug”. But the public thinks the Dome is the least appropriate manner of celebrating the millennium; 57 per cent say it is “not very appropriate”, while only 12 per cent think it is very appropriate.

Optimism for the millennium is not spread evenly across the population, especially when it comes to the Dome. The Greenwich celebrations are overwhelmingly more popular with the young than with those aged over 45.

More than 20 per cent of young people think the Dome is a very appropriate way of marking the millennium, and 31 per cent think it is quite appropriate. People with children under 15 have a similarly high approval rating. But the total score is dragged down by the disapproval of the over-45s, as only 39 per cent think it is very or quite appropriate. The idea that the official celebrations should be mainly religious and spiritual is less popular than it being either a celebration of the past 2000 years, of Britain, or of the modern world.

NMEC is happy with the appeal to young people and families with young children who are, after all, more likely to visit such an event in the first place. It makes sense to target them strongly. A number of the sponsors are interested in boosting their image with young people, such as McDonalds and BT. Tesco is feeding the sponsorship into its “computers for schools” programme, linking it to the retailer’s attempt to closely associate its brand with education.

The survey shows a degree of enthusiasm for the millennium and support for an official monument, though there is concern that too much effort is being concentrated on the Dome. The question for sponsors is how they feed their Dome connection through to their own marketing messages.

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