Usually when brands align themselves with the biggest and boldest in sport there is a pretty straightforward attempt at ROI. You tie yourself to a team, an athlete or a league, you spend money against the marketing build out, and you sell more widgets or you up your client base or you use the spend to increase your marketshare xx times. Rarely does the unknown, albeit a company not in a traditional spending environment from business to consumers, come along and make the massive investment into what could be the unknown.
Recently there was that bit of eye-popping partnership, as a massive India based IT service company, but not a brand known around sports or in the commercial space, HCL Technologies, antied up to grab a unique partnership with one of the world’s most powerful sports brands Manchester United. Unlike brand looking to break into a new consumer space…Emirates Airways in the U.S. is one that jumps to mind… HCL is going to use the sponsorship in some sensible but unconventional ways with the hope that those improved experiences in the digital and mobile space build brand value, business relationships and business customer loyalty.
As part of this partnership, HCL and Manchester United will work together to explore and unveil a number of digital initiatives to transform the experience of the club’s 650 million global followers. The first step, will create a state-of-the-art United Xperience Lab to be housed within the Old Trafford stadium. Within the lab, HCL and Manchester United will explore ways in which the club uses technology to create a unified fan experience for supporters; and in the process set a new engagement benchmark in the world of sport. HCL, one of only eight 21st century listed technology companies in the world to cross $1bn in Net Profit, $5bn in Revenue and $15bn in Market Capitalization, will also go much further than just the stadium experience though. Their goal is to work with all Manchester United partners, and even all their supporters, to be the link between enhanced technology and better ways to immerse oneself in the Manchester brand around the world.
We caught up with Matt Preschern, Executive Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer for HCL to get a more conventional understanding of what seems at first look to be a bit of an unconventional but bold first step into the world of sports business.
Why Manchester United as the first foray into the sports/fan experience? Will you be looking to advance this work into other stadia in the EPL or is this exclusive to ManU?
Manchester United is an iconic brand, not just in the UK, and Old Trafford is a very special place for fans to immerse themselves in the storied club. However what was really appealing to us was the global reach of Manchester United, with over 650 million followers. When we started to work through the opportunity with the staff, we saw the potential this could have if we did everything right, and thus far as we have started we are very excited wit where this can go for us as a brand as well.
With regard to other EPL teams, this was a bid process and it is exclusive to Manchester United, so that is where all our focus will be. Even if it wasn’t we think for now we have to make sure we do everything right with the team, its partners and the stadium so it would not be smart to try and look elsewhere until we achieve all we want with Manchester United.
How will the in-stadium experience differ from what fans do now at Old Trafford?
We are right now in the phase of defining what the team is looking for from a web and mobile experience, and we expect that process to be finalized in three to six months. TheUnited Xperience Lab will be the hub for fans, but our goal is even bigger. We want to work and learn from all the Manchester United business partners as to how we can create a digital ecosystem where all of the partners work together to do bring the experience around the club to life in a better and more engaging way. How can we assist with a car partner, wearable tech, traditional package goods. How do we take the data in stadia from a match and make it live in various ways that enhances the overall experience, and then take that experience and make it global through the partners of the club. That will be the real challenge and that’s what we view as the opportunity.
Was the decision to go with ManU because of their brand, an interest in football, an interest in the EPL or a combination?
Well it was a bud process but we did all our homework to see how we could actually make an impact through technology. If we were going to do this it had to be with a forward-thinking partner who shared our vision, and Manchester United fit all those pieces.
What will the partnership include for the millions of ManU followers around the world? Can this live in a mobile environment or when the team travels globally?
It has to be both a traditional experience that can be hands on and a mobile experience. That is the key piece of global engagement for us and for the club. A stat that struck me is that 46 pct. of all social media is about sport when a live event is going on. Sport takes over the conversation and we are seeing more and more that the conversation and the engagement in sport is now through some mobile device anywhere in the world. There was one prediction I saw that by 2020 every person in the world will have a mobile device and that’s where the club needs and wants to engage more. We are here to help grow that experience for Manchester United and its partners as well as its supporters.
It is a bit unconventional for a brand that is not specifically b to c to make such a massive commitment, why do this now?
We are a global company; we are growing and we are healthy but we understand if we partner with someone who has an iconic legacy already we can help each other. We can bring a digital experience to Manchester United that they have not been able to create on their own and this was the right time in our business environment to make such a step. We have already seen a benefit to our brand as the amount of interest for other potential clients and organizations outside of sport has been tremendous. Companies look at what we are going to try to do and they have already started to say, if you can do it for Manchester United we want you to do it with us; help find and build world class solutions and help us solve our problems in the digital space.
American sport is becoming more global, do you see this as a way to gain exposure and create such experiences with say, NFL or NBA teams now looking to grow the fan experience in new or renovated stadia?
We always look for new ideas and opportunities, but I think in the short run we owe it to Manchester United and their supporters fans to build the business objectives we have. After we have things in place we can look elsewhere, not just in sports but in the arts, entertainment and other areas where we see great opportunities to enhance a communal experience.
Why is engaging with the sports fan, or the ManU supporter, important to the company?
Our business is obviously not just about sports, so we want to engage with all aspects of the Manchester United community to see how we can help solve issues through technology. We are in discussions with the city of Manchester to see what areas in the community e can help with for example. We take this partnership very seriously, we are now a part of the Manchester United brand and that carries a great deal of responsibility. At the same time we think our Manchester United relationship is a great way to engage with the community in and around everything associated with the club and that also includes the supporters not just locally but across the globe. We want to help with and engage everyone with the passion for all things Manchester United.
If I am a ManU fan or a sports marketer, where will I first see the impact of this partnership play out?
Very quickly we will present The United Xperience Lab, which is a fairly large space at Old Trafford that is granted for use for our partners and eventually fans. They will be able to touch and feel how technology is being used in and around the brand, and it will include both team related information and will eventually have all the club’s partners involved as well. That will be step one, and all those experiences will be conveyed outwardly through the digital space to fans not coming to Manchester. After that we will concentrate on the broader mobile experience so that all the positive elements we can build will have an application globally.
Are there other deals in the works in sports and is there an anticipated timeline when we will see them, or is this a one-off for now?
The launch and the coverage and the chatter in social space is already helping position HCL as a strong player with companies who we have not yet even engaged with and some of them are sports properties. That is why we are spending so much time and effort to make this work with Manchester United, its fans and its partners. It’s not something that can be measured in traditional metrics, and sometimes that is hard to understand. If you take it to hard core business metrics to judge success, that will come over time and we will see the ROI that comes from such success. As we deliver on the premise of a Manchester United experience in a different way, I believe other companies will turn to HCL and see how we can help them on their digital journey. For now, it’s all about Manchester United and the progress we can make in helping them solve their technology issues, enhance their global fan experience and make the brand grow even bigger than it is today.