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January 21, 2019

Why branded events sometimes fail

When I was first learning the trade of marketing I was fortunate to be part of a graduate programme run by one of the world's most established breweries. As I recall, there were eight in our cohort, split into three-year groups. The programme required us to rotate through a sequence of marketing appointments to equip us as marketing managers.

My first job had me working for an irascible, chain smoking and hard drinking PR manager in the Scottish city of Glasgow. We shared a short, narrow office, a telephone, a filing cabinet and his ashtray. By the end of the working week I was completely kippered.

Working in PR was a tremendous introduction to the spirit of the brewery and its brands. It wasn't so much what we did as how we did it. Whether on the phone, answering customer letters (this was way before social media), running photo-calls and press conferences, or dealing with crises. We always responded quickly, we told the truth or we bought the time needed to shape the truth, and we entertained generously. My boss was an ardent internal lobbyist who required the directors of the company to face the market and take responsibility for success and failure in equal measure. As a result, the media and the public were on our side, and stayed there.

Roughly a year later I became the brewery's sponsorship manager, responsible for a calendar of sporting events and fixtures that reflected the role of beer in a traditional male society and the recreational interests of the board of directors and their wives. Thus horse racing knocked knees with premier league soccer; darts and snooker rubbed shoulders with yacht racing and snow skiing. I developed a mountain of mileage claims and two wardrobes full of outfits.

The rite of passage at the end of this assignment was to run a top notch soccer competition in Scotland's biggest indoor arena. Televised nationally over three nights and covered exhaustively in press and other media, this was also the brewery' s biggest trade entertainment opportunity - where the most lucrative deals in beer were sealed.

This was a tremendously exciting opportunity for a 21 year-old, and it was made very clear to me that success was non-negotiable. So I lived and breathed the event for three months, and the whole marketing team aligned behind my plan to deliver a specific audience take-out (what marketers call the functional and emotional impression they wish to make on a specific audience).

Experiences like these give you a certain outlook when you attend events organised by other people. In the past week I attended a very large and actively marketed event, which you may have read about in international media. This was the 200th anniversary commemoration of the Battle of Waterloo.

It may seem strange to commemorate a killing field but in truth the battle marked the end of a period of fearfulness that had afflicted Europe for more than two decades. It brought relative peace to that troubled continent for the next 99 years. (Either history rings your bell or it doesn't, but for me it's ring-a-ding-ding.)

 For the 200th anniversary, the good people of Belgium invited over 6,000 enthusiasts to dress up in period costumes and re-enact the battle in the original location. They then promoted the event in all relevant media and built stands to accommodate up to 200,000 paying spectators.

By the time my own gallant band arrived, the place was pretty much full. So we proceeded to our allotted places in the stands to watch events unfurl. For some time I had a close-up view of the back of a child's head (thankfully no nits). Then, when I managed to crane around him, I could make out tiny figures, some bangs and smoke, and the occasional snatch of music. It took me back to those far off days when we would sit high up in the stands of our own events and ask ourselves, "so, what does it look like from back here?"

Waterloo 200 was an epic fail in terms of take-out. We left having seen little and felt nothing.

The failure may have stemmed from a lack of brand focus as much as event management competence. In fact I'm not sure to which brand we had been exposed. Waterloo itself, or more accurately the cult of Napoleon, is clearly a Marmite brand (you either love it or hate it). And at Waterloo 200 the cult was celebrated more than the end of its influence. A bit like marking the collapse of the Berlin Wall dressed as members of the Stasi.

Nor does brand Belgium seem to have a very well defined equity or value set. Frequently invaded; violent colonial past; headquarters of a volatile economic community; rather overrated cuisine. Its strongest brand identifier is a statue of a child urinating. Some more work needed here.

As marketers, part of our role is to decide what branded events can contribute to the overall strategy. Then to plan and execute them with a clear focus on the impression we wish to create. Finally and most importantly, to account for return on marketing investment. Skills that the organisers of Waterloo 200 needed to sharpen.

Chris Harrison has 30 years experience of marketing and advertising most of them spent in Africa. He leads the African operations of The Brand Inside, an international company that helps organisations to deliver their brands and strategies through their people.



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