The meteoric rise of sponsorship over the past twenty years has created some unlikely partnerships. Brands have slapped their names on just about any sporting or entertainment property irrespective of the associations in the rush to get their names heard.
Mobile phone operator O2’s sponsorship of rock venues owned by Academy Music Group, announced this week, ranks as another curious link-up. Fresh from plastering its name all over international laughing stock the Millennium Dome, O2 will impose its logo on nearly a dozen rock venues across the country.Welcome to the O2 Academy Brixton, Birmingham or Glasgow. The brand takes over the AMG sponsorship from Carling, which is scrapping its music associations.
The O2 deal leaves many scratching their heads and wondering how the mobile phone operator will forge a credible link with the world of live rock. Carling had a natural fit since swigging lager while watching a band is a popular pastime. However, receiving a mobile phone call while your favourite band plays is just an annoyance.
With exclusive pouring rights at the venues, Carling benefited from a boost in sales. The fact it is dropping the association is a measure of the disarray facing the UK’s top lager brand. In truth, Carling’s sponsorship contributed little to the Academy venues aside from the beer, a few newsletters and the odd competition. As any sponsorship expert will tell you, a brand has to add something of value to the consumer and give a clear context to the product in the sponsorship.
But O2, lacking any plausible link with the property it is sponsoring, has developed a potentially explosive strategy. Its £90m link-up with the Millennium Dome gives priority access to O2 customers, with 10% of tickets for concerts at the venue – from Prince to Bon Jovi – reserved for them. This preferential treatment is being extended to the Academy deal. The mobile phone brand will introduce fast-track entry to the venues and VIP areas for O2 customers. They will have priority access to tickets to gigs, getting a 48 hour head-start on music fans on other networks or those who do not own a mobile phone. O2 customers are already fast-tracked to bars at festivals sponsored by the operator. Those signed up to other operators have to queue for half an hour to get a drink. O2 customers can get one in five minutes.
On the face of it, this sounds like a marketing master-stroke which will get customers flocking to the brand when they hear the benefits. However, it could equally come across as a crass and coercive marketing exercise and may backfire. It is a strategy that browbeats music fans for whom mobile phones are an insignificant part of their experience. By interposing itself between the public and their entertainment, O2 is demonstrating an astonishing ignorance of the relationship between fans and artists.
The strategy is likely to create a deep well of ill-feeling towards the brand when fans find they have to join lengthy queues to enter a venue while O2 customers are fast-tracked to the front. It may make people wonder whether O2 has hiked its prices to pay for it. This could split up friends on a night out into O2 customers with access to a VIP area and the rest.
O2 may be perceived as acting like a shady, intimidating tout who has bought up all the tickets and has started making unreasonable demands.The mobile service is the UK’s brand leader. But it is insolently gatecrashing the nation’s number one cultural activity. With Carling pulling out of rock and other brands mere also-rans, O2 now effectively “owns” British music.
But its bullying sponsorship tactics threaten to damage the British music experience and rebound on the brand.