Aon and Manchester United’s New Shirt: Local Protest, Global Brand

AON Center, ChicagoLater today, Manchester United will unveil their new shirt in Niketown, Chicago, with local company Aon’s name splashed across the front of it. Well, I say local, but Aon are local to Chicago only in the sense that their headquarters are perched in the 1,136 foot tall Aon Center skyscraper a few hundred feet from Chicago’s lakefront, in what was once the world’s fourth tallest building.

Aon’s business has very little to do with Chicago, and hence the fact they sponsor Manchester United, and not the Chicago Fire. Aon has 500 offices in 120 countries and are the world’s second largest insurance broker, employing 36,000 people. All of those employees will receive an Aon-adorned Manchester United jersey, according to this SportsBusiness Journal article. Aon has grown by gobbling up companies far and wide, and this global business has been hugely successful, but has left them struggling for identity. Manchester United, they believe, is the global brand to give them a recognisable worldwide identity both internally and externally:

A $10 billion provider of insurance brokerage services and consulting, Aon is looking at its four-year rental of sports’ most valuable real estate primarily as a means of coalescing a disparate company fashioned from 445 acquisitions over 20-plus years that is now spread over 500 offices in 120 countries.

The adoption of ManU as a “unifying” platform is a tacit acknowledgment that the Gaelic word chosen for the company moniker in 1987 did not do the job, as Aon means “oneness.”

Despite the company’s size, there has also been some market confusion. There are various energy companies around the world named Aeon and Eon, not to mention Aegon, an insurance and investment firm based in The Netherlands. Ironically, Aegon is the shirt sponsor for Ajax, another top European soccer team.

“All that stuff put us in a position where we’d started to look for something four years ago that could really punch through the general noise and get our brand some global visibility,” said Aon Global CMO Phil Clement.

But everything Aon looked at was either too expensive or would have taken too long to introduce and activate. A media blitz was considered, as well, but that also wasn’t the answer.

“We saw competitors try to do this purely with advertising without seeing any real success,” Clement said, “and at numbers considerably larger than what we’re spending on this sponsorship.”

Nothing had the reach and immediacy of an association with what is arguably the world’s most famous sports team.

What that SportsBusiness Journal article fails to mention is that something has changed in relation to Manchester United’s brand since Aon inked the deal to replace AIG as its shirt sponsor way back in June 2009 in a £35.9 million deal.

Since then, the green and gold  protests against the Glazers have dominated the headlines about Manchester United, at least in England. This week, the Telegraph reported that many fans planned to avoid purchasing the new Aon shirt.

AON, it might be said, won’t be worried by this. Their target with this deal is less England than the world, where awareness of the green & gold protest is less deeply evident. It’s not even particularly Manchester United fans that Aon are aiming to appeal to; it’s just people who are aware of their global brand, which is almost everyone, according to their research:

“It was our perfect storm,” Clement said. “We were looking for a global opportunity. We had this unique exposure to the AIG/ManU relationship, which we saw as very positive, and because we aren’t a consumer brand, we didn’t have any of the concerns some companies might have had about following AIG.”

To a man, Aon officials say ManU’s power as a corporate bonding agent will take precedent over any external marketing.

“Foremost is the notion of unifying our firm,” said Hans van Heukelum, head of global marketing for Aon Risk Services and the person responsible for activating the ManU deal. Still, he was quick to trot out measures of brand recognition in countries like South Korea (better than 90 percent), which happens to be the fastest growing Asian insurance market. Some companies were pursuing the ManU deal solely for the sake of their Asian business. “We have a very credible Asian presence with our clients, but beyond that, it’s a brand play there,” van Heukelum said.

The same is true of India, the Middle East and Africa. In Europe, sales incentives and client hospitality are paramount. Having a marketing platform every region’s company can use is more important than having a giant marketing plan forced on every one of Aon’s regions.

Aon, then, are a good partner for Manchester United in times of fan strife, as a non-consumer brand less likely to be concerned by visible public protest.

Still, ironically, Aon specialise in risk management, a fitting match with the Glazer debt hanging over Manchester United. And a certain nervousness at Aon’s headquarters about the Glazer protests can be seen in their decision to reach out to Manchester United blog the Republik of Mankunia to offer some PR spin for fans. It’s not often sponsors go to the fans and take their questions, as David Prosperi, the VP of Global Public Relations at Aon Coporation, did:

RoM: Your company is now associated with a club against whose owners thousands of fans protest against each week. What’s that doing for your ‘brand value’?

DP: We think the passion of the Manchester United fans is part of what makes the brand so strong. What other team has such a large fan base outside of its own country? What other team sells more shirts than the entire 32 teams in the U.S. National Football League? What other team has aided brand awareness of 100 percent in Korea, 90 percent in China and 80 percent in Japan? What other team has over 60 million web page impressions per month? We think the brand value of Manchester United is of high quality and remains quite strong, and that its continued strength will allow Aon to grow our brand in a more powerful way than if we did it ourselves.

RoM: As fans we’re obviously concerned with the amount of debt the club is taking, rumoured from to be anywhere from £300m to £700m. As an insurance and risk management specialist does Aon see any opportunity to possibly restructure or free the club from the debt by any way possible?

DP: One of the things that attracted us to pursue the sponsorship opportunity is the passion of fans of Manchester United; the passion they have for the players and for the team to succeed and win. We also greatly admire the club’s desire for wining and for excellence, along with the fact that they have built a powerful brand with tremendous global reach. We think that the work that David Gill and his team are doing is great, and we do not see ourselves as being in a position to offer advice on financing or how to manage the club.

RoM: In the past Manchester United supporters’ groups have publicly criticised he club’s commercial partners. Are you in favour of this free speech?

DP: Aon is all about free speech and all about transparency. We believe in transparency in all of our dealings with our clients and we are all about providing them with the highest value for price. The reason we reached out to The Republik of Mancunia is that we want its readers to get a little better understanding of Aon, what we do as a firm and what we hope to accomplish as the shirt sponsor of Manchester United. We hope that dialogue can continue over the course of the sponsorship. We understand that there will always be differences of opinion and we respect the rights of the fans of Manchester United to voice their opinions. That is where their passion comes from. As long as free speech is based on the facts, then we can always agree to disagree on certain issues.

The Manchester United Supporters’ Trust (MUST), leading the way in the protests against the Glazers, reminded overseas fans today that their support was as important as local fans in challenging the ownership.

From reading a lot of the supporters’ forums, it is very apparent that many United supporters now see the new Aon shirt as a symbol of the Glazer family’s ownership rather than a symbol of the Manchester United we historically know and love. It’s important that all American Reds understand the necessity to remove the Glazers from our club to improve our future chances of success and survival. It’s now clear the huge effect the debt burden inflicted on us by the Glazer family is having.

Aon will be hoping the risk they’ve taken on Manchester United’s global brand doesn’t come back to bite them as the Glazer story continues to unravel, a concern they will clearly see even from 1,136 feet up in the American Midwest.

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