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Why Vanarama 'sacrificed' National League sponsorship to combat prostate cancer

The National League rebrands from Vanarama to Manarama

Vehicle leasing brand Vanarama recently made English football history when it orchestrated the first ever rebrand of a national league during the season – but this wasn't a typical sponsorship play.

From September through October, the Vanarama National League was renamed the MANarama National League in a charity partnership with Prostate Cancer UK.

Vanarama and its PR agency Alpaca Communications conceived and turned around the stunt in around a week. According to its analysis, Vanarama said it has accumulated some 1.9m views – vast reach for a quickfire campaign involving English football’s fifth and sixth tiers.

The campaign began in September with team captains at 34 matches wearing MANarama armbands with a new logo to illustrate their clubs’ support against the most common cancer in men. There were also new perimeter ads highlighting the activity and raising awareness of fans at the fixtures, and watching them on TV.

Paul Cable, chief marketing officer of Vanarama, told The Drum that the brand has always been unusual and innovative since it was founded in 2004. “We’ve a sense of humour. After the League announced Prostate Cancer UK as its official charity partner, that gave us an opportunity to speak to our audience about something that we know is important to them. We felt a responsibility to get this right.”

To this end, Vanarama also rebranded its website as MANarama and donated £150,000 to Prostate Cancer UK. Furthermore, with the strapline ‘lease a van, save a man’ it will also donate £50 a rental from now until 13 October to the charity. The rebrand was quickly mobilised and even BBC Sport has embraced the branding in its results show.

One of the stats the brand and its partners are putting forward is that a man in the UK dies from prostate cancer every half of football (or every 45 minutes). Some 11,800 a year or so. It ties in well to the sponsorship thematically.

As such, Cable said it was important to make as much noise as possible around the issue. Like most good ideas, this one “now seems so obvious but took a while to brew”. On the stunt, he said: “It’s definitely one of the most significant things I’ve been part of since taking the CMO post in April this year.

“It’s a fantastic cause that we’ve proudly supported for years through our partnership with the National League, this is simply the next big step in that support. It’s so not about us – sacrificing our own name felt like the right thing to do.”

Vanarama’s sponsorship of the National League is now in its fifth year, and that has granted the brand an authenticity and right to operate in football. “The National League is about grassroots football, its fans are ‘real football fans’ and over the last few years, our partnership with the league has helped us build trust with them. That trust enables us, every now and again, to have real conversations about things that really matter, beyond traditional football banter.”

It is this journey he hopes will alter the scales of balance and transform the company from a challenger brand to something much closely resembling a household name.

At the same time, Vanarama remains committed to evolving what the partnership with the league could be – in this case, that meant getting coverage in most mainstream media for what could cynically be described as a lower tier football league rebrand. But while the idea took a mere week to execute, it took years for each company to form the prerequisite trust to make such a drastic change to the league’s IP.

“This campaign owes as much to timing as it did to simply being a good idea, but it would never have worked without the mutual trust and respect for each other’s organisations. You must be in sync with your sponsorship partners for a campaign of this scale to hit.

“A brand is an organisation’s identity, and we were asking the National League to follow us and give up theirs for 45 days. Most organisations would have stopped to deliberate, slowing down the process, but the National League were right there with us from the get-go.”

While it may sound like a cliche, it is conceivable that football can serve as a vehicle for good causes if it is used wisely. Cable leant into this theory. “It’s the national sport, one in three people in the UK are football fans, which means the rest of the population either lives with or knows someone who is a fan. Football can bring together communities, forge friendships and be a fantastic pathway for embedding a strong message.”

There were challenges in delivering the work, Cable admitted that each of the league’s stakeholders (including the clubs) could have technically vetoed the work. The fact that such a stunt had never been tried in UK football reportedly catalysed partners to get involved.

“Perversely I think it helped that we were doing something that hadn’t been done before, it meant everyone wanted to be part of it, from our in-house designers pulling together the new league logo to the charity creating captain’s armbands. Everyone just got stuck in.”

He has learned a lot about his brand in the last few days. He concluded: “We found that our pace of work and creativity are exactly what you’d expect from a challenger brand. There’s no fear and an incredibly strong can-do attitude at Vanarama. We believe that ‘even if it’s brilliant, we make it better’. Soon it will be a case of ‘so how do we do that again, but bigger’.”

Michael Tattersall, National League chief executive, said: "This temporary change is a first for English football and we’re proud to be a part of this historic moment.”

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