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Rebooting Wimbledon: how a year off court propelled its digital strategy

Wimbledon

A year away from the courts has given Wimbledon time to cement its digital strategy while also experimenting with new channels. As part of The Drum’s Sports Marketing Deep Dive, we catch up with its marketing chief to find out how it put a crisis to good use.

Wimbledon was, in many ways, the canary in the Covid coalmine for sport. In April 2020, as other calendar events optimistically ’postponed’, doling out hope that the pandemic was a short-term blip with promises of a swift return, Wimbledon became the first to cancel altogether.

This wasn’t a decision taken lightly; it would be the first time since the second world war that it didn’t go head. But organizers had been in crisis meetings since January, before the virus was on the radar of most Brits, after a Chinese sponsor raised a red flag. And as the government issued lockdown notices in late March, it knew that any chances of a return to ’normal’ were low.

“In January of 2020, we were speaking to Oppo, one of our commercial partners, and our chief executive at the time thought Covid could have an impact on us,” recalls Alexandra Willis, the chief marketing and communications officer for the All England Lawn and Tennis Club (AELTC). ”So we formed a crisis group and when the first cases were reported in the UK we started thinking about potentially having it with limited spectators, or playing behind closed doors.

“It was on April 1, when we officially cancelled, that we saw the reaction of people. There was a sense that if even Wimbledon is cancelled, this Covid is a big deal.”

Wimbledon is one of the most popular events in the sporting calendar. Its particular brand of Britishness draws crowds at home and abroad, pulling in die-hard tennis enthusiasts as well as those who enjoy its strawberries-and-cream traditions as they cheer on Roger Federer. It’s a brand that’s been carefully honed and managed over decades, but even still it was worried about what a year off might do.

“We were worried that people would fall out of the habit. And if they left, then you not ever quite get them to come back.”

So the tournament set about creating a marketing campaign that would remind people what it stood for and why Wimbledon was special. Dubbed ‘Wimbledon Recreated’, the initiative asked the public to submit stories on their favorite tournament memories and teamed up with the BBC to re-run iconic matches from days gone by.

“Obviously, the numbers weren’t anywhere near what they would have been in a normal Wimbledon year. But it enabled us to maintain our reputation at the same levels that it was in 2019, according to YouGov.”

This also bought it time to plan for the year ahead. Despite being rooted in tradition, Wimbledon is one of the most forward thinking media brands in the world. For the past six years it has been on an evolution that has transformed it from ‘stuffy’ to a digital powerhouse, forging a partnership with IBM to overhaul its data-capabilities, website and apps, and using artificial intelligence to create content from key court moments, which is then distributed across platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Weibo, WeChat and – most recently – TikTok.

Pre-pandemic, much of its marketing was targeted at the people attending matches. After the 2012 Olympics in London, it focused on the IRL experience and creating a “magical Wimbledon word” that started from the moment they arrived at the local tube station.

“Not knowing how many people – if any – we would have there, we decided to focus on how people could engage from wherever they are,” says Willis of its 2021 strategy.

“One of the things we’ve launched, which is not original in concept but hopefully is in execution, is Wimbledon at Home. It’s a series of things people can do wherever they are in the world based on different passion points. So you can order your own afternoon tea in the UK, we’ve created a load of recipes for cooking, we’ve got a fan survival pack that you can buy and we’ve launched Wimbledon Kids with content targeting young people.”

As part of the At Home push is a virtual reality mobile game fronted by Andy Murray. It allows fans to experience playing on Wimbledon’s Centre Court where the former men’s number one encourages players as they aim to hit targets across a net.

Elsewhere, it partnered with American Express to build a virtual Henman Hill (or Murray Mound) that people can ’sit on’ to watch a match. It is Wimbledon’s firsts foray into a virtual world and allows users to create an avatar that they can dress in themed outfits bought using its own virtual currency – Wimblecoins. Users can explore the Hill, play games and enter competitions.

“It’s very much a companion to watching a match, but we hope it’s another touchpoint to bring people into Wimbledon. IBM has been saying for years we should have a Wimbledon Minecraft execution, so it’s a great way for us to learn while delivering the event.”

It also doubled down on giving at-home viewers access to player performance insight. Working with IBM, it has created Power Rankings, which sees an AI tool ingest everything from a player’s past match statistics to media commentary to create predictive insights and generate a probability of a player winning before the match begins.

And in the spirit of looking outwards, its ad campaign from McCann this year celebrates the traditions fans have created rather that its usual tactic of highlighting the moments it thinks make Wimbledon great.

Virtual worlds and using AI to predict match winners before they’ve even stepped on court are a far cry from Wimbledon of old. And as we emerge from the past year, Willis’s key role is to bring in younger fans with these innovations, while keeping the purists on side.

“The way we’re trying to approach it is not to put innovation and tradition in conflict, because as soon as you do that you’re suggesting that there’s a trade-off. One of the reasons we’ve been successful with our innovations is because we haven’t been random – we’ve built them around the concept of keeping all traditions relevant.

“If you think about the Virtual Hill, the execution is all very innovative. What makes it Wimbledon, however, is the fact that it is green with the grass, that it has strawberries, that the trophies appear and Rufus the Hawk appears. All of these things are differentiators and characteristics and they make it special, but we’re using innovation to bring them to life in all sorts of different ways.”

Check out The Drum’s Sports Marketing hub for more on how the marketing industry can score long-term success through association with sport.

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