Rugby World Cup branding battle: Will it be the official sponsors or hijackers who win off the pitch?

Booked your World Cup tickets yet? It’s not until 2018 isn’t it? No the other one – it’s a now less than a month away…

You’d be forgiven for not realising that the world and its cauliflower ears will be descending on Brighton, Gloucester and Milton Keynes in September, as the #RWC2015 is set to touch down on these shores for the first time since 1991.

England opened their World Cup warm up account two weekends ago at the home of the RFU, Twickenham, a stadium that could easily be labelled the second O2 given the amount of branding that hits you as you pick your way through the hog roast stands and residential streets to the venue itself.

As all squad shirts in the tournament are forbidden to carry branding – headline, official or otherwise – sponsors must be light on their feet again. Coke’s heavyweight presence as always will be felt at a major global sporting event – but giving away 1m rugby balls to encourage uptake of the sport seems like a marketing campaign by numbers. At least the Jason Robinson ad campaign features both sexes and doesn’t wallow in the nostalgia of 2003 too heavily.

The battle to be part of the conversation through social media will also no doubt be giving marketing directors a few sleepless nights before the whistles blow on 18 September. Perhaps where O2 has been clever, and has needed to be, is in its bid to win the battle of the World Cup hashtags.

#Weartherose could easily be mistaken as a call to arms to the country and not a subliminal tap on the shoulder to upgrade your handset. It’s the basis of O2's World Cup campaign, aligning with its O2 Priority plan offering – fans were able to win tickets to the #weartherose Take That Concert to officially wish the England squad good luck at the O2 on 9 September.

Although it's stretching the bounds of a ‘send off'... our boys don’t actually have to leave England or Wales in this campaign.

What’s the opportunity for the more mischievous brands planning to hijack the tournament and grab the headlines off the pitch?

Speaking of which – surely the infamous Paddy Power Mischief department will be planning a World Cup stunt, all in the best possible taste. The White Cliffs of Dover, the Thames or Big Ben must all have heightened their security in anticipation.

There can’t be many ex-players left now, who fans can still remember, that haven’t been media trained over the summer and put onto video or into print by companies hoping to have their share of the noise.

Perhaps it should be left to those who may not be official tournament sponsors, but have invested in the sport in the long term to step up and further build trust with the fans and their potential customers.

In addition to O2, SSE’s sponsorship of Wembley Arena and Swalec Stadium gives it prime spaces to engage with fans, conveniently not far from the action, whilst abiding by the rules of the branding game.

You could argue that it has hardly been a euphoric build up to next month’s fun and games. England’s football fans would arguably be marching down the streets with buckets of Vindaloo and Three Lions would be dusted down for yet another release by now.

Yet organisers and sponsors have been wily in biding their time before ramping up the noise. Let the opening Barclays Premier League exchanges settle down, enjoy the last golf major of the year, watch Lord Coe’s ascension to IAAF President and hopefully capitalise on some British gold medal fever from the World Championships. And that’s before anyone has coughed the words ‘Sepp’ or ‘Blatter’.

Of course a World Cup should bring a feelgood factor to the country – the sun should come out, skirts should miraculously get shorter and open top bus operators should be waiting by the phone.

Rumbles of discontent have already started to be heard about plans to shut bars and pubs early – a distinct lack of options to toast your country’s victory after 10pm. But fans should count themselves lucky that they can get a pint at all, with the football community waiting to see what Qatar will bring in 2022.

Yet with the 2012 legacy white elephant still lingering, will this World Cup deliver the grassroots shot in the arm that this iconic British sport needs?

And before anyone starts questioning a trip to the South Coast, who wouldn’t want to enjoy watching the Springboks take on the Japanese in the £120 million 30,000 seater strong Brighton Community Stadium on a Saturday afternoon…

Andrew Olley is executive producer at Borkowski.do. He tweets @andrewolley

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