Inside Paddy Power’s campaign to ‘call bullsh*t’ on football shirt sponsorship

Paddy Power’s PR boss discusses its Huddersfield Town sponsorship, including the Twitter storm it caused following the launch of a controversial branded sash on the kit and how it was all part of a wider campaign calling time on football shirt sponsorships.

Paddy Power is calling time on the football shirt sponsorship market with a new campaign lobbying brands to keep kits commercially clean.

The ‘Save Our Shirt’ campaign was revealed today (19 July) following a week-long hoax marking the bookmaker’s first foray into football sponsorship courtesy of a year-long deal with Championship side Huddersfield Town.

The hoax started on Monday with the gambling brand pushing out a video revealing the tie-up that showed visibly disappointed Paddy Power execs struggling to come up with ideas to support the campaign beyond the club’s association with Star Trek star Patrick Stewart.

Then on Wednesday, Huddersfield Town revealed its 2019/2020 season kit, featuring a Paddy Power-branded sash covering the front of the shirt. As debate raged among fans as to whether the sash was really a PR stunt, the players kicked off their friendly against Rochdale on Wednesday night sporting the kit.

This was all, in fact, part of a deliberately orchestrated strategy months in the planning between club and sponsor, alongside creative agency VCCP. Huddersfield Town has confirmed that despite signing Paddy Power as its title sponsor, the club’s real kit will not feature any branded logo.

Furthermore, the bookmaker will stage a ‘shirt amnesty’ outside Huddersfield Town’s first home game against Derby County on 5 August for fans to hand back older branded shirts and receive an unbranded version.

“Even with the initial casual announcement on Monday, people were like ‘What the fuck? Paddy Power are sponsoring a football team, that’s not Paddy Power at all’. That was basically our insight from the start,” Paddy Power’s head of PR, Lee Price, exclusively tells Marketing Week.

“Every bookmaker, apart from Paddy Power it seemed, sponsors a football team and they’ll just lazily put their brand on there. Our tagline is ‘Enough of the Nonsense’ and we’re calling bullshit on football sponsorship generally, but the rest of the industry too. It wouldn’t be Paddy Power just to stick our logo on there.”

Paddy Power is keen to highlight that this coming season, more than half of the teams in football’s top two divisions will be sponsored by a bookmaker, including 14 of the 24 Championship teams. Price also points to recent examples of brands changing the heritage of their club to fit the whims of a new sponsor.

Huddersfield Town
Huddersfield Town midfielder Jonathan Hogg playing in the controversial ‘sash strip’.

Despite being nicknamed the Bluebirds, in 2012 Cardiff changed the colour of its kit from blue to red to please its Malaysian owners, who also own Visit Malaysia, while West Bromwich Albion introduced a combination boiler as a mascot to please new sponsor Ideal Boilers.

“These things are almost beyond parody and that’s why we went for the big sash, because we actually think, ‘would you really be surprised if that happened in the future? No you wouldn’t’. That’s why we’re calling bullshit on it,” Price states.

The team wanted the launch campaign to have an underlying tone of ‘Fuck’s sake Paddy Power’ to play up to its brand reputation with the sash sponsorship, but then flip everything on its head.

“We wanted to say ‘You know what? We’re not this caricature you all think we are. We’re a football brand at heart’. That’s what’s really important to us,” Price explains.

“The Save Our Shirt campaign, which is going to go on and on, is really important to us because we think it’s a genuine issue and we wouldn’t do it if it wasn’t a true insight. We’re about more than just a quick Twitter storm and that will play out in the coming days and weeks.”

Channelling an underdog spirit

Having decided on how it wanted to break into the football sponsorship market, Paddy Power had conversations with several clubs that weren’t willing to embrace the campaign. Price says that when the team met with Huddersfield Town, if there had been any initial resistance – as they experienced with other clubs – they would have walked away because the launch strategy is not for the faint-hearted.

Luckily, the club embraced the idea straight away and were ready for the backlash, which included a complaint from the Football Association (FA) about a potential breach of sponsorship rules. Price says that while the club could have gone elsewhere and signed a more lucrative deal, it was thinking fans first, which made the partnership such a great fit.

Huddersfield Town
The logo-less Huddersfield Town kit for the 2019/2020 season.

“Their sense of humour, they’re down to earth, it reminds us a lot of Paddy Power. We’re not the biggest team in the bookmaking industry, but we know who we are and we have a clear sense of ourselves and we really got on well with Huddersfield immediately,” says Price.

“It became apparent very quickly that they would be an ideal partner for this and that’s why we’re working with them. It’s all very good talking the talk, but they’ve really had to walk the walk this week. The FA stuff, which neither side saw coming, has got heavy at times but they’ve always remembered what the campaign is about: delivering their fans a shirt to be proud of.”

While the launch strategy was carefully devised over a period of months, Paddy Power is clear that it wants to work with the club in an unscripted way that taps into the power of content and playing into key moments as Huddersfield Town looks to return to the Premier League this season having been relegated in 2018/19.

“We’ve got a standard sponsorship deal, so now all of our Paddy Power bullshit is out of the way – ish – we’ve got the things like player and manager access and there’s a lot of fun to be had with content and finding the right moments to do interesting things with the club,” Price adds.

“I don’t want to give anything away, but it will become apparent in the early weeks of the season that we want to work with the club and the fans to celebrate this unique, ground-breaking thing we’re doing.”

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