As the England prepares for the first match in the Rugby World Cup this weekend in Japan, its veteran shirt sponsor O2 has launched a call to arms campaign to rile support for the squad.
O2 first unveiled its 'Wear The Rose' call-to-action at the last tournament, which took place closer to home. While the message of the multi-million campaign hasn't changed much, given the time difference, there will be less physical activations, with activity taking place mostly online. It explores the host nation's rich traditions and heritage, which has seen O2 walk a fine line to avoid cultural appropriation.
Wear it, show it, share it
For 24 years, O2 has been emblazoned on the shirt of every England rugby player, making it the longest-running shirt sponsorship in the world. Alongside the logo on the white shirt is a red rose embroidered on the chest - a symbol that now sits at the centre of O2's marketing campaign.
"What better way to unite people than behind the symbol that represents the very heart of England?" said Nina Bibby, O2's chief marketing officer. Launched at the previous World Cup, 'Wear The Rose' has evolved this year to 'Be Their Armour' - in that by wearing the rose, supporters will protect the squad.
Eager to submerge the England’s squad into Japanese culture, the ad campaign portrays the English ‘knights’ as samurai warriors with the traditional armour modified to reflect the England rugby shirt.
Created by VCCP, the spot opens with mysterious riders busting into a remote forest settlement to rouse shadowy inhabitants into action - signalling O2’s support for the team.
They help them forge and fit the rose-bearing armour of the England team, including England captain Owen Farrell alongside teammates Maro Itoje, Jonny May, Ben Youngs, Courtney Lawes and Elliot Daly. The 'fans' work to dye the traditional iron plates white and painting a red rose on the front, topped with a white kabuki helmet with a bristling moustache that was designed to strike fear into the enemy.
The England team are then seen being suited in the modified samurai armour before they march through the town, as hooded figures take off their cloaks to reveal other members of the team.
Armed with the uniquely customised English samurai armour the fans have made, the players ride off to take on the tournament. The spot is heightened by Claire Wyndham's whispery 'My Love Will Never Die.'
Avoiding stereotype accusations
With O2 heavily referencing Japanese culture for the campaign, Bibby said that it was keen to avoid any accusations of appropriation given the damage other brands have recently suffered.
Last month, Dior was accused of cultural appropriation after it released a preview of its Native American-inspired fragrance campaign for ‘Sauvage,' justifying the backlash by saying it collaborated with Native American consultants.
Meanwhile, last year Dolce & Gabbana’s brand fell out of favour among consumers in China after it released seemingly racist and sexist ad that made fun of chopsticks. It led e-commerce and retail giants to remove its products and the cancellation of its fashion show.
In the month prior, the spa and body care brand Rituals was criticised for a campaign that showed different white models in various cultural and traditional Asian dress and setting.
"We went to extra detail to make sure everything respected Japanese culture," explained Gareth Griffiths O2's head of sponsorship when asked how it ensured the ad didn't fall into stereotyping and caricature. "Respect was at the start of everything did."
O2 said worked with experts from School of Oriental and African Studies to ensure it didn't fall into stereotyping traps and involved England coach Eddie Jones - who is half Japanese - from the outset.
Given the last tournament took place in England, Bibby said activations will be different from four years ago. "Although from a messaging perspective it's very similar, we can't do a lot of physical activations like we did last time due to the distance," she explained.
This time around, the campaign is far more digital and content-led, as as well as the distance, the way people consume media has changed in the space of four years.
"The England rugby shirt with the O2 in the middle of it - that's a platform for us," said Biddy. "It's something we leverage to drive brand awareness, brand engagement and loyalty."
According to World Rugby, the sport is experiencing an unprecedented growth, with the number of people playing the sport worldwide on the up. In 2018, 9.6 million men, women and children played the game worldwide.
As interest soars during the tournament, if England fail to get past the group stages like last time, it will mean O2’s promotion might suffer.
Griffiths admits one thing O2 “can’t control is what goes on, on the pitch” and that it “plans for group games, but also has plans in place should England progress, which is rooted online.”