Analysis: Gulf airlines' obsession with sports sponsorship

In football, cricket, athletics or any other professional sport, the opportunity to emblazon a carrier's brand across shirts, merchandise and stadiums appears to be too tempting an opportunity to miss.
Analysis: Gulf airlines' obsession with sports sponsorship
Florentino Pérez, President Real Madrid FC with Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum, presenting the Real Madrid gift of a personalised shirt with number 1.
By Nadia Khan
Mon 29 Dec 2014 10:05 AM

Research has shown that sports fans make likely travellers, and with the demographics of sports fandom shifting towards those with more disposable income, the association with travel and sports has never been stronger. With airlines keen to promote their brand to win over the ever-competitive passenger segment, major Middle Eastern carriers have increasingly been turning to sports sponsorship as an effective affinity marketing tool.

In football, cricket, athletics or any other professional sport, the opportunity to emblazon an airline’s brand across shirts, merchandise and stadiums appears to be too tempting an opportunity to miss.

“Sports are all about emotion,” explains Raymond Kollau, founder of Airlinetrends.com, an independent industry and consumer trends research agency. “By aligning themselves with individual athletes and national sports teams, airlines are tapping into the general public’s emotions - which can be a powerful way of branding.”

Although advertising budgets have generally come under pressure in an era of airline cost-efficiency measures, the popularity of sports sponsorship has been rocketing to unparalleled levels of investment. “For the new airline players who are making their mark on the global arena, the massive reach that sports still has makes it an ideal platform to build their brands,” says Kollau.

“Football’s huge popularity in particular, has made it a magnet for international carriers looking to raise their profile across much of the world.”

Research on global airline sponsorship expenditure from specialist sports business analyst IMR Publications shows football is indeed by far the most popular sport to be sponsored by airlines across the world, with the heftiest spenders coming from the Gulf region.

“Middle Eastern carriers represent the biggest investors in sponsorship among global airlines, with Emirates and Etihad spending in the region of $250 million between them on sports rights annually,” says Simon Rines of IMR Publications.

“Emirates’ spend of $182 million accounts for approximately 35 percent of global airline sponsorship expenditure – making it one of the world’s leading sponsors in terms of spend.”

Although $182 million may sound like an extortionate amount of money, it appears that Emirate’s heavy investment in its brand marketing has been paying off. The carrier’s “Hello Tomorrow” campaign has led to it being ranked as the world’s most valuable airline brand for the third year running by British brand evaluation consultancy Brand Finance. This represented the highest entry for any airline, with a brand value of a staggering $5.48 billion.

Backed by a big marketing budget, Emirates’ has been able to make some major strategic sports sponsorship decisions. The airline backs some of the biggest football teams in the game including Arsenal, Paris St Germain, AC Milan HSV, and Real Madrid.

In 2004, Arsenal’s Ashburton Grove stadium in London was renamed ‘Emirates Stadium’ as part of a £100 million sponsorship deal. The airline also opened up its branded VIP lounge at Real Madrid’s Santiago Bernabéu Stadium, aptly modelled on the Boeing 777 serving its Dubai-Madrid route last year.

Emirates’ biggest sports sponsorship deal has been as the Official FIFA Worldwide Partner since 2007, which will run out at the end of this year. “The (recent) FIFA World Cup final really resonated with Emirates as both these proud nations – Germany and Argentina – are on our route network,” says Tim Clark, president at Emirates Airline.

“We have transported more than 18,000 supporters to the tournament from all over the world, a testament to the close connection we enjoy with communities and fans of the sport worldwide.”

By associating with such large scale events and teams, Emirates’ is able to align its brand image with the values of success, competitiveness and loyalty.

“Such electrifying events, the passion of the players and the fans, and the incredible successes on the field are why we continue to invest in sports sponsorship, particularly football,” says Clark.

Emirates’ approach shows that in order to maximise the real benefits of sports sponsorship, it is imperative to go far beyond branding players shirts or stadium walls. As Julian Yeomans, director of Abu-Dhabi based sports marketing agency, Fast Track Middle East, points out, while sports fans are among the most loyal captive audiences in the world, they also demand some authenticity from sponsors in an increasingly commercial sporting landscape.

“Sponsors must work harder to genuinely add to the experience of being a sports fan – they must talk the language of the fan, and engage with them in a way that genuinely adds to their existence as a fan,” he says. “The most successful sponsorships are genuine, mutually-beneficial partnerships which offer rights holders significant benefits beyond the purely financial.”

As an example, Yeomans finds that significant investment made by most of the top tier FIFA Partners into activating their sponsorships and adds real value to the experience of fans both at the tournament and remotely around the world.

“City Fan Zones, online gaming, match-day hospitality experiences, player ‘meet and greets’ are just a few examples of activities that add to fans’ enjoyment of the tournament and can drive genuine brand affinity and loyalty,” he adds.

“In an age where sport is dominated by global TV rights and vast online communities, sponsors have to work just as hard to engage fans away from events as with those pitchside.”

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