Rugby World Cup campaigns a 'road test' for the 2020 Olympics

Brands are treading carefully as they calculate how to get the most out of the biggest international sporting event before the Tokyo Games next year.

Japan in action against England in 2018 (Shutterstock)
Japan in action against England in 2018 (Shutterstock)

With approximately 100 days until the Rugby World Cup gets underway, Japan is soon to find itself at the centre of the sporting world for a prolonged period. It’s an unfamiliar position for the country and for a number of domestic sponsors, and both the rugby and Tokyo 2020 are seen as a rare opportunity to forge an emotional connection with international audiences.

Domestic sponsors 

At the same time, Japan’s relationship with rugby is less clear-cut than in most rugby-playing nations. In a campaign that began last year, one sponsor, Mitsubishi Estate, has sought to reposition the sport as cerebral rather than violent. By all accounts, it’s likely to remain niche in its host country. But the world cup is expected to draw a crowd of 400,000 visitors and reach an audience of billions around the world (Ernst and Young estimates that the 2015 world cup reached around 4 billion TV viewers, although the figure has been disputed).

Phil Townend, Asia-Pacific COO of Unruly, which recently conducted research into the varying perceptions of a rugby-themed campaign by Beats in eight markets, says he thinks a lot of brands will use the world cup as a “road test” to help them hone their messaging for next year’s Olympics, even if they are not sponsors. He sees it as a chance for smaller brands to test ROI around a major but relatively low-risk event. Although they won’t reach a US audience, it’s still a good opportunity to try out their messaging on other western markets. “If it resonates, they’ll probably feel more confident going big behind a message around the Olympics,” he says.

Japanese sponsors include Canon, NEC, Toto, Mitsubishi Estate, multinational security company Secom and Lipovitan D, an energy drink brand under Taisho Pharmaceutical. Campaign asked spokespeople from each of them to outline their aims and activities around the event. All are expecting it to help lift their brand image, even if it doesn’t result in immediate ROI. Within that context, some are more interested in the international market than others.

Canon might be the most internationally recognisable sponsor, but as a business under considerable pressure from changing market dynamics, it wants to use the tournament to boost its brand image and awareness of its photography-related services through a physical presence at the venues. It also wants to strengthen relations with business partners by offering them tickets. Communications centre on the concept of the ‘moment’, but the brand is also behind a TV programme on Nippon TV looking at the making of rugby ‘heroes’, and a collaboration with local governments to showcase giant weatherproof photos of action from the tournament in the nationwide venues.

One of the most ambitious sponsors, Mitsubishi Estate has assumed the mantle of popularising rugby itself while encouraging people to experience its facilities: the company is the developer behind Tokyo’s upscale Marunouchi commercial district, where it wants to create a festival atmosphere around the tournament through the ‘Marunouchi 15 Streets’ project, which involves the creation of rugby-themed installations and events in the run-up to and during the world cup. The company has taken an experiential approach to making rugby seem both more cerebral and friendly, ranging from educational forums to comedy and outdoor art. A spokesperson says they hope to attract visitors who are in Japan for the world cup to the area (which does not have a stadium) through association.

Rugby-themed 'bench art' in Tokyo's Marunouchi district

Toto is using the event to raise awareness of its high-tech lavatories overseas, as well as encouraging domestic consumers who are not necessarily in the market for property construction or renovation to consider upgrading to its products. The brand does have an international profile, but its products are seen by many as expensive novelties rather than serious potential purchases.

Involvement with the rugby is an opportunity to change that. Through participation in events staged by the organising committee and other ambient branding activities, “we expect recognition and brand image to improve, and in the long run lead to overseas purchasing,” says project leader Mariko Shibasaki.

Perhaps the brand with the most fitting product for the tournament (energy drinks are equally relevant to athletes in training and fans with hangovers), Lipovitan D began rolling out its TV campaign a year ago. Its focus is squarely on the home market. The series charts the grueling training regimen of the national team. The brand has a relatively long history (18 years) of supporting domestic rugby through its own tournament, the Lipovitan D Challenge Cup, and like Mitsubishi Estate, it hopes to “create more fans” of the sport at the same time as lifting its own brand.

Like Secom, NEC’s presence centres on security. It is the more public-facing of the two, and will have the chance to showcase its facial recognition technology, which will be used to admit press to the Tokyo and Yokohama stadiums and support volunteer recruitment. The company will have similar involvement with Tokyo 2020. A spokesperson said sponsorship will “help create relationships with people in different regions”. Secom, meanwhile, is focusing on corporate hospitality and employee engagement.

International outlook

From a global brand perspective regarding the Rugby World Cup, it’s fair to say that things are currently rather quiet. With the tournament beginning in less than four months, one might expect there to be more visible signs that a global sporting event is soon taking place.

However, to those in the know, this is not surprising. While brands in Japan may be viewing the Rugby World Cup as a golden marketing opportunity in isolation, international players know it will take place at the tail-end of a huge global summer of sport. Right now consumers are wrapped up in the FIFA Women’s World Cup in France, the largest women’s sporting event to date, and the ICC Cricket World Cup in the UK, both huge events themselves that will have large crossover appeal to Rugby World Cup fans.

Following these are the Ashes cricket series, the 2019 Copa America football tournament, the Vitality Netball World Cup, and others. Put simply, rugby must wait its turn.

“There are lots of major sporting events going on, which are taking up all the oxygen right now as it relates to advertising and people’s attention,” says Misha Sher, worldwide vice president of MediaCom Sports & Entertainment. “From an advertising point of view, so much of it is around timing. The difficulty, when you’re a sponsor of a major event, is how you plan and manage the momentum, so you don’t go flat out too early.”

Timing is crucial for brands to be most effective, and Sher adds that marketers must account for the Rugby World Cup’s own specific nuances, such as the fact that it is 50% longer than the FIFA World Cup.

(Source: Toshifumi Kitamura/AFP)

“You need to keep that in mind and manage your execution as advertisers,” he explains. “What is the critical time to capture attention? You don’t want to get completely lost in the noise if you’re coming out now.”

The key for sports activation planning around a major event, rugby or otherwise, is big milestones in the run-up: teams launching their kits or unveiling their squads are two obvious ones. These milestones give fans the opportunity to start getting excited, and provide brands the right audience at the right time to get their campaigns off the ground. 

To that end, Wednesday 14 June marks 100 days until the start of the Rugby World Cup, and Holly Millward, Asia regional director at CSM Sport & Entertainment, says this will mark the beginning of some big global marketing campaigns.

“We will see more noise around that date,” she predicts. “It’s right for brands to be careful about when they start making noise, and doing it when people are interested and engaged.”

At the same time, Millward continues, it all comes down to what each brand is looking for from its Rugby World Cup marketing. Milestones are significant, but brands looking for longer-term gains also go about their executions in different ways.

She points to Jaguar Land Rover, a longtime partner of World Rugby, which has focused on grassroots rugby and announced its partnership with Impact Beyond, World Rugby’s grassroots programme ahead of the Rugby World Cup. Watch brand Tudor, official timekeeper of the Rugby World Cup, is using the event to launch its brand in Japan.

For headline sponsor Heineken, Rugby World Cup 2019 project manager Jim Geraghty said the brand has activations planned to go live at 100 days, both global and local. A teaser video has been running for the past couple of years already.

“Similar to previous Rugby World Cups, we’re looking to have a global campaign that’s rolled out across as many markets as possible,” he reveals. “Then from a host market point of view, we will roll it out as effectively as we can, obviously with some key changes to it, taking into account local knowledge of rugby.”

The media plan will then go large in the pre-tournament build-up period when, Geraghty says, Heineken will launch a full series of above-the-line advertising all the way down to in-bar visibility and activations and match day activations focused in and around the 12 host cities.

For Heineken, which has a long association with rugby worldwide, the opportunity both from branding and financial perspectives are significant because it is the first such tournament in Asia.

“There is a huge amount of excitement about rugby already in the market, but rugby is not a traditional sport in Japan, albeit growing very fast,” he says. “Our campaign will be very much focused around that. We obviously want to strengthen our association with Rugby World Cup, but we also want to make fans, and in particular Japanese fans, feel like they are a part of the world cup.”

Geraghty hits upon a critical issue that comes into any brand association with sport: the size of the potential consumer audience they can reach for their marketing dollars. It’s no secret that neither Japan nor Asia broadly are bastions of rugby, and with the tournament taking place in the shadow of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games, are brands choosing to hang onto their budgets until next year?

It’s a mixed picture. MediaCom's Sher, based in London but in a global role, says the conversations he’s having with brands are Olympic in nature. “I think rugby for a lot of clients is quite niche, whereas the Olympics allows them to tell a much broader story,” he says. “The Olympics appeal to a much broader and more diverse audience than rugby.”

That seems unsurprising given the multitude of disciplines the Olympic Games celebrate, in comparison to a single sport event like the Rugby World Cup. Millward accepts that some brands will see the tournament as a “dress rehearsal” for Tokyo 2020, but also believes many brands, particularly Japanese ones, see it in conjunction with the Olympic Games as a golden time for business growth in Asia. “It’s a time when sport will be front of mind and they can put their brands on the global stage,” she says.

For his part, Geraghty is hugely optimistic for Heineken, and it seems he has reasonable cause. World Rugby has already hit its target to get a million more Asians playing rugby, nine months ahead of schedule, and perhaps more crucially, after Japan’s historic victory over South Africa at the 2015 Rugby World Cup in the UK, a fifth of the country—25 million consumers—watched the Cherry Blossoms take on Samoa in their next game.

“It’s about inspiring consumers in those non-rugby markets, and obviously we’re going to be focusing on Japan, but we’re looking to inspire those consumers to discover rugby and make the sport more accessible and tangible,” Geraghty says. “We want to do our bit to bring them through the journey of rugby, let them know what the values of rugby are, and then hopefully that will reflect back on to our Heineken brand in Japan. Because similar to rugby, Heineken is not as developed in the Japanese market as in other markets.”

Regarding the financial returns, Heineken Kirin told local reporters they were expecting a 70% sales bump during the tournament. Tony Wheeler, Heineken Kirin general manager, said early analysis in Japan of the teaser film shows good uptick in brand awareness and a corresponding brand association with high-quality or premium, which should help the sales predictions.

“But looking long-term at how you build a brand, it’s about creating something that sticks with people more than just a quick increase in sales,” he adds. “We’re really trying to build Heineken here in Japan, that’s our long-term goal.”

The brand has already encountered its first PR hurdle after global headlines suggested Japan could run out of beer during the tournament due to the high demand of incoming fans. Geraghty says Japan is already a huge beer market, and that Heineken is working closely with the organising committee to ensure all venues are fully stocked.

With things set to ramp up for international brands once the 100-day marker is hit, it seems consumers will start to hear plenty ahead of the Rugby World Cup 2019. All that’s left is to hope the intangibles that could affect the event come good, and Millward sees one as particularly critical. 

“There’s a real hope that Japan performs when it comes to the tournament. Whatever anybody says, you may get a great groundswell of interest because it’s a global event and they’re hosting it, but undoubtedly the performance of the national team will make a huge difference. If they perform, it will take the event into another stratosphere.”

Ryoko Tasaki contributed to this article.

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