Will Barclaycard get the interest?

Barclaycard’s emergence as title sponsor of the Premier League over the next three years has been greeted with widespread incredulity. Not, as it happens, because of the price it has had to pay, though that was high enough – &£48m conservatively; about &£65m if Barclaycard goes for broke and picks up the ITV highlights as well. The reservations were about a complete lack of strategic synergy between top-class football and the somewhat beleaguered credit card company.

Are the critics right? Because if they are, Barclaycard has just made a very expensive mistake.

The first point worth making is that Barclaycard has an admirable belief in branding. It has proved this often enough, even in the face of increasing competition, with a series of high-profile TV ad campaigns, dating back to the days of Alan Whicker. While others responded to a flood of discounted US credit cards by engaging in a bloody price war (or, in the case of Access, falling dead on the battlefield) Barclaycard stood its ground. Not only did it hold on to market leadership, it also managed to continue charging its customers astonishingly high rates of interest.

But it has not escaped unscathed. Year by year, the size of its market leadership diminishes. It might have hoped that, by deploying its superior brand power, it would eventually see off the pretenders – who, in offering introductory discounts of up to zero per cent, cannot have been making money. But so far this has not been apparent. To US competition has been added a new home front, in the form of the Internet banks. Some of these, like Egg, are well branded, offer highly competitive interest rates, even after the introductory period wears off, and – worst of all – show little sign of going away.

Barclaycard’s response, as evidenced in it Premier League deal, amounts to more of the same, although admittedly a bigger investment is involved. Just like its expensive TV branding campaigns, featuring Rowan Atkinson and Angus Deayton, Barclaycard’s espousal of football can be described as sponsored entertainment.

Barclaycard believes that in charming its market, a little of the goodwill will rub off. The awareness benefits of the deal are, of course, to die for. And to those who scoff at the apparent lack of connection between football and Barclaycard brand values, it can retort that it is the critics who are out of date. The demographics of football have changed: it’s more family-oriented and, though mass market, more upwardly skewed these days. In a word, more Barclaycard. Indeed, some cynics would say that only with a Barclaycard can you afford to pay for the tickets.

All the same, something remains awry. Barclaycard hardly needs more awareness. It has plenty, and could top that up with another TV campaign (surely a less expensive marketing avenue than the sponsorship deal). Then again, if Barclaycard wants to raise the game a bit, as Carling – eventually – did, by weaving its product into the fabric of football, that will take a lot longer than a three years to achieve. And time may be one luxury that Barclaycard cannot afford.

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