By Carla Johnson published July 5, 2015

Aon Stops Shoveling Quicksand, Partners With Manchester United

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Aon signed an eight-year, $240 million sponsorship of Manchester United in April 2013. The deal extended the relationship that Aon started in 2009 when it invested $130 million over four years to display its brand on Manchester United jerseys.

But Aon’s sponsorship of the famed British soccer club looks unlike any you’ve ever known. As part of the deal, Aon delivers solutions for Manchester United in 20-plus areas and played a key role in its initial public offering, providing advice on the best strategies and options for access to capital. Aon Benfield helped raise $233 million for Manchester United’s IPO and was a co-manager in syndicating the equity necessary to complete the transaction.

The relationship isn’t simply a put-a-logo-on-it sponsorship. Rather, Aon now can zoom in on the complex work it’s done for Manchester United, and in doing so, provide a noteworthy and memorable way to explain what Aon does.

Not your everyday play

In struggling for brand recognition, Aon realized that it needed a big partner to help with global recognition. “We have 78,000 employees all over the world but it’s hard to find more than 3,000 people in one place,” says Phil Clement, chief marketing officer for Aon. “We needed something that we could rally around internally and also engage clients in the conversations that we needed to have. But first they needed to know who we were.”

Clement got approval from his executive team by showing how the sponsorship supported the goals of the company. “When you show up with an idea that focuses on things the C-suite wants to accomplish, it’s easier. We had strategic uniformity between the Manchester United sponsorship and what we wanted to accomplish for the company,” he says. The three things that he hoped to accomplish included:

  1. Brand awareness – The Manchester United sponsorship gave Aon an explosion of brand awareness. This proved particularly true in developing markets key to the company, such as Korea and Brazil. Once the market knew that Aon existed, it also made it easier to answer the question: What, exactly, does Aon do?
  1. Common conversation – Aon used its sponsorship of Manchester United to get people to engage in the spirit of the company in ways that would have been hard without it. The sponsorship helped catalyze the energy of the company and the sport in many ways. In one effort, Aon took three balls from a game in Manchester and flew them to the southernmost points in the world where Aon has offices — the tip of South America, the tip of South Africa, and the southern side of Australia. The balls were passed from employee to employee all the way back to London. As the balls arrived in offices, employees created content about the journey and talked about how Aon was impacting the communities. It was engaging for clients to track, and brought together employees with a common challenge.
  1. Direct client engagement – Aon’s six business areas – capital, data and analytics, health, retirement, risk, and talent – tie directly to the Manchester United team. It made it easy to tell the Aon story using Manchester United as an example. “As companies, we know that access to capital is a big part of performing. A big part of Manchester United’s strategy is how access to capital plays out on the field. For Aon to be able to tell that story through football is much more interesting,” Clement says.

As important as this high-profile partnership has been for Aon, it has proven equally important for Manchester United in its efforts to raise capital and use it effectively to improve its performance. Manchester United’s attractiveness to commercial partners stems from its unparalleled ability to reach global audiences that exceed other international sports clubs and brands. Its supporter base, alongside its rich history and tradition, makes it a unique organization that is highly attractive to sponsors. In turn, Manchester United has been able to help Aon connect and engage with supporters.

“Partnerships such as the one with Aon clearly demonstrate how Manchester United provides a powerful global platform that enables our partners to amplify their brand and grow their business,” says Richard Arnold, group managing director for Manchester United. “Solid risk-management advice and human-capital solutions provided by Aon free up capital for us to invest. As a result, our commercial segment has been growing at very fast rates, is highly profitable, and the revenue stream is highly predictable due to the long-term nature of our contracts. We remain convinced that there are huge commercial opportunities out there for Manchester United, both in terms of categories as well as countries, and we are excited about the growth opportunity that lies ahead.”

Redefining value

Clement notes that the difficulties of content marketing are really underestimated. “Any marketing organization that decides to move in this direction needs to focus first and foremost on understanding how they’re creating value. Content strategies don’t work when it’s ‘we have a solution, now write about it.’ It has to be at the core of the value-creation process.

“It’s important as a marketer and an enterprise to understand how you’re perceived, the strategic value that you add, and if you’re creating value for your company and your industry.”

Success also depends on the talent of the team, and Clement is still working to get this part where he would like it to be. To create great, compelling content, a company has to have people with a versatility of skills – not just B2B writing, but also television, magazines, and anywhere content needs to live. “We look for people who’ve been in places where content is important – places where they live and die by the quality rather than just writing to a project plan,” he says.

In it to win it

Does fortitude pay off? It certainly has for Aon. It has gone from an unknown, second-place runner to a well-known No. 1 in its industry. When it comes to dollars, it translates into almost doubling revenue from $6 billion to $11 billion and market cap from $13 billion to $28 billion.

“We’re in a completely different category of how the market perceives our brand than before,” Clement points out. “Where before we were in relative obscurity and firmly planted in second place in the heads of many clients, we’re now recognized by more people on the planet than not, and recognized as the most credible in our space by people who make those decisions.”

This article originally appeared in the June issue of Chief Content Officer. Sign up to receive your free subscription to our bi-monthly print magazine.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute

Author: Carla Johnson

Recognized as one of the top 50 influencers in content marketing, Carla's latest book, Experience: The 7th Era of Marketing, with CMI's Robert Rose, teaches marketers how to develop, manage, and lead the creation of valuable experiences in their organizations. Carla serves as the Vice President of Thought Leadership for the Business Marketing Association (a division of the ANA), and is an instructor for the Content Marketing Institute, the ANA, and Rutgers University. A frequent speaker, Carla also contributes to industrywide news outlets, forums and conferences on the future of the B2B marketing profession, leading through innovation and storytelling. Learn more at Type A Communications and follow her on Twitter at @CarlaJohnson.

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