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New Balls Please: Time for new Wimbledon challengers to pick up the mantle?

By Mike Thorne | Commercial director



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June 26, 2017 | 7 min read

If form in the warm up events for this year’s Wimbledon is anything to go by, we’re about to experience a changing of the guard in the world of men’s tennis.

Federer – the tournament favourite on the exchanges at the time of writing – lost to 39-year-old (and world number 302) Tommy Haas in Stuttgart last week. Andy Murray went out of Queen’s to world number 90. Djokovic’s form is in freefall, and while Nadal won in Paris, you’d be a brave man to back him to win his third Wimbledon nine years on from his inaugural triumph.

And if you go back another generation, the woes seem even worse (Boris Becker’s gone bankrupt, while McEnroe’s admitted in a book that his sons stole from his personal weed stash…).

Andy Murray

Andy Murrray winning Wimbledon

These masters of their craft will be remembered for generations, but it’s inevitable at some point that a gaggle of young pretenders will take over torch-bearing duties. As a keen tennis player myself (there’s not many people I’ve not told personally about how I once beat someone who beat someone who took Pete Sampras to five sets) it felt only natural to compare this sea change in the sport with the marketing plans of well-funded challenger brands nipping at the heels of industry stalwarts.

FedEx’s swansong?

It’s startling that Federer’s never entered into a brand partnership with FedEx, although the brand’s undoubtedly benefited indirectly from the ‘Federer Express’ effect through its ATP Partnership.

And I’d suggest that, much like Federer, global delivery firms like FedEx will have a nigh on impossible job to dominate their industries in 10 years’ time to the extent they do at the moment.

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There’s one big reason for this: Amazon. Awarded a freight forwarding licence from the US government in 2015, it’s now hoovering up logistics specialists like French firm Colis Privé – providing it end-to-end control of its own supply chain.

Meanwhile, younger, technology-driven challengers like Pall-Ex – the pan-European distribution network founded by Dragon’s Den’s Hilary Devey – are waiting in the wings; much like Stan Wawrinka is ahead of Federer’s impending retirement. Agency partners supporting this innovator don’t require an industry background; their marketer recently told us that creative, fresh perspectives from outside of the sector are preferred.

Tyre-ing times for industry stalwarts

Much like Djokovic having to dig deep to grind out victories against relatively unknown opponents like Diego Schwartzman and Pablo Carreño Busta over the last couple of months, 2017 is seeing industry-leading tyre brands (Michelin; Goodyear et al) on the back foot as smaller, lower-cost rivals look to gobble up market share in an increasingly competitive sector.

Finland’s Nokian Tyres (yes, it’s headquartered in Nokia) is one example; the company told our researchers last month about a desire to communicate the “adventurousness” of the brand, and move beyond its heritage as a winter tyre specialist. Over in South Korea meanwhile, much like rising tennis star Chung Hyeon, Kumho Tyre is on an unstoppable march to grab global market share – fresh from a cash injection from Chinese rival Qingdao Doublestar.

Aldermore reasons to play left handed

Nadal has been the king of clay for well over a decade now, but Albert Ramos Viñolas’ victory over Andy Murray in Monte Carlo this year suggests the pecking order of Spanish lefties could be set to change.

But this isn’t the story of a young pretender bursting onto the scene; Viñolas has been on the tour since 2010, steadily climbing his way up the rankings through a tireless programme of mid-tier tournaments and hours on the practice courts.

The similarities are stark – believe it or not – with UK challenger banks. Founded in 2009, Aldermore has slowly but surely been making a name for itself through specialist lending and savings products while top-tier rivals are faltering. Here, a recent conversation with the brand’s marketing team suggested a potential interest in sports sponsorship next year – so long as it’s closely aligned with its specialist target audience. And service-focused Metro Bank, founded in 2010, is continuing its meteoric rise by being on course to post its first full-year profit; raking in £1bn in deposits in the first three months of the year.

Murraying times for the number one

Two Wimbledon titles, an Olympic gold medal, the world number one spot… but has Andy Murray taken his eye off the ball? Time will tell, but it’s been a tough 2017 for Scotland’s sweetheart so far.

Murray’s pre-match meal of choice may be sushi, but in the marketing world his year’s been more comparable to McDonald’s and Pepsi – struggling to maintain global dominance in the face of disruptive innovators (how many ‘better burger’ chains can there be?) and facing fallout from ill-conceived campaigns across social media. His reappointment of Lendl and renewed training efforts remind me (sort of) of Pepsi’s refocusing on its Quaker Oats division and healthy breakfast products, revealed in a conversation back in February.

So who’ll be the one to topple the Fab Four?

Just as no-one can predict which challenger brand will become the next Uber or Deliveroo, it’s impossible to say whether in four years’ time we’ll be talking about Thiem, Goffin, Raonic and Sock or Ramos Viñolas, Wawrinka, Hyeon and Isner. But what’s for sure, is that you’re not going to make any money by continuing to bet on the top guys indefinitely.

And when it comes to business development, my (admittedly abstract) point is that you must ensure there’s a smattering of smaller, nimble challenger brands in your pipeline; they might not have the same budgets as the big guys right now, but in five years’ time you might look back and thank your lucky stars you got in there just in time…

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