How will Coca-Cola go down with the locals?

Coca-Cola’s sponsorship of the Football League sees the global company trying to interact with local communities. But will fans of the 72 Football League clubs buy it? asks Daniel Thomas

Coca-Cola is attempting to make its global brand truly local by creating one of the UK’s largest bespoke marketing campaigns to support its £15m sponsorship of the Football League (MW last week).

But it remains to be seen whether lower division football fans, notorious for tribal loyalty to their clubs, will accept the multinational brand as one of their own when the campaign launches later this week.

The campaign is designed to interact with local communities at a level that only retailers and banks have attempted before, through initiatives such as Tesco’s computers for schools or HSBC’s “The World’s Local Bank” campaigns.

Coca-Cola’s £7m advertising will target the fans of each of the 72 teams in the Football League. Every team will “own” its Coca-Cola logo, with the iconic red-and-white trademark transformed into the colours of the club.

The different logos will be used to communicate with the 72 separate groups of fans, from their use on perimeter boards to cups for drinks on match days.

These local initiatives will be supported by a television and outdoor ad campaign, created by roster agency Mother, that features the tagline: “The Coca-Cola Football League. The Real League”.

A source close to Coca-Cola says that the brand will be made to appear “specifically real” to the fans of each football team, adding: “Everything the company does will make fans feel as if Coca-Cola is behind them, and their team.”

Coca-Cola GB marketing director Julia Goldin says: “For the first time we are changing the colours of our logo to those of the club, which underlines the importance of the fans to us.”

Because of the brand’s association with major football events and top talent, Rob Quick, business development director at agency Premiere, admits that he was initially surprised when Coca-Cola first announced the Football League deal. “But,” Quick adds, “Coca-Cola is now instantly involved at a personal level with 72 different communities around the UK, which is very clever indeed.”

Coca-Cola’s involvement with the Football League will not be limited to its main brand. Powerade, its sports drink, will also be pushed strongly, with medical staff and players being given Powerade, or Powerade bottles, for on-pitch use.

Some have questioned whether Coca-Cola will be able to deliver a localised campaign as effectively as retailers and banks, which are perceived to have a natural affinity with this method of marketing through their branches and stores.

Ben Wells of sports agency Red Mandarin says: “Coca-Cola has a history with football, but this could be an awkward fit as the company is a global monster. There is a risk the brand could overstep the mark as football fans are very savvy.”

He claims that Coca-Cola’s biggest problem will be supplanting Nationwide in the minds of the fans, who still refer to the league as “The Nationwide”. The building society was able to use its branch structure to establish its association with the Football League.

But a spokeswoman for Coca-Cola says the sponsorship will be leveraged at a local level by the company’s distribution arm, Coca-Cola Enterprises, which has established relationships with clubs through its offices around the country.

Britvic Soft Drinks category director Andrew Marsden says that creating effective regional or local advertising can be “extraordinarily difficult” and fraught with pitfalls. He says: “You have to get the detail right as the wrong tone or style will offend.”

Crucially, the league has rebranded its three divisions to help escape the legacy of Nationwide and establish the Coke ownership. The top division is now known as the Coca-Cola Championship, with the former Second and Third divisions becoming the First and Second divisions (MW March 25).

But fans could interpret this move as severing ties with local community interests, says Nationwide head of sports marketing Peter Gandolfi.

He worries that the League is attempting to create a version of the more elevated Premier League, and says Coca-Cola could be blamed by fans. “The League is a community brand property. The fans will want to see Coke helping them and their club.”

Football Supporters’ Association development officer Steven Powell also has concerns about the extent of Coca-Cola’s involvement. “There is a danger this could be a bit patronising. But we know Coke isn’t doing it for charity – they want to sell a product. And that’s fine with us as long as they are also doing good for the teams.”

But Football League commercial director Richard Masters says the League and Coca-Cola have “a good radar about what fans want”.

Coca-Cola is aware its task is to win the fans’ trust by helping to develop their teams and has agreed to hand over £1m for training purposes if the teams score more goals together than in any other season.

Only by being seen to help the local interest of fans will Coca-Cola be able to earn their trust and, ultimately, their money.

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