Village greens, crisp clean whites, the sound of leather on willow, the gentle and continuous murmur of the crowd, long and lazy days spent basking in the glory of the English summer; the sense of Englishness. No sport matches cricket for its longevity and sense of social occasion. Despite the globalisation, despite the push for profit, cricket retains a romantic core. It is one of its enduring appeals to its many sponsors.
The Ashes? Or The Investec Ashes? The primary challenge facing sponsors today is recognition of their brand alongside a sport. And in cricket, this means brand recognition against battle lines that were drawn before living memory.
This striving for brand recognition extends beyond just cricket. Brands align themselves to a sport or a competition and, if they do it well, become instinctively recognisable alongside it. It highlights the global appeal of cricket in the modern sporting environment that so many firms are keen to associate themselves with it.
Investec commenced its 10 year deal with the England and Wales Cricket Board in 2011. “It takes a few years to get a sponsorship to work,” explains Raymond van Niekerk, the man behind Investec’s sponsorship portfolio. “In my experience it takes about three years to work out what you’re doing. The first year is always chaos as you work it out! Then you improve. We don’t want to get to three years and find ourselves renegotiating. We want a long term deal.”
Four years in, and cricket fans are used to seeing the Investec branding atop the bowlers mark and on the pitch side advertising hoardings, as well as the distinctive Zebra that is seen at every England Test match.
Previously, the English Test summer has been sponsored by English-centric brands. The profile of a more globally focussed brand such as Investec shows the direction in which cricket at large is moving, in keeping with the sponsorship opportunities that sport offers.
Investec was involved in English Test Rugby for 11 years for the appeal in South Africa, the UK and Australia (three of Investec’s main markets), but van Niekerk is adamant that cricket is a step up from rugby for Investec’s sponsorship portfolio. “The scale is far larger, with greater exposure. It was a natural move to raise our profile.”
It raises an interesting question as to where cricket sits in the pantheon of sporting sponsorships. How does its value compare with other sports? Investec has had involvement with cricket, rugby, hockey and horse racing.
“Football is on another planet entirely,” says van Niekerk. “The sums involved are astronomical, but then so is the exposure. Every country in the world sees the Champions League and the FA Cup. So football only really works if you have a truly global brand. For us, after football, cricket is the most important because of its appeal in the markets in which we are operating. Cricket is really important to us.”
It also offers a different type of exposure to any other sport. A Test match can last five days, with seven hours of coverage each day. “The Derby is only two days of exposure – it’s a very different type of event,” explains van Niekerk. “Also, the actual race, the Investec Derby, is over in minutes. We love the length of exposure we get from cricket and the fact that it is quintessentially English. Everyone in England is aware of cricket and The Ashes; they are English institutions. Likewise, The Derby extends beyond just horse racing; it’s not just for diehard racing fans. You get a better profile of male and female spectators, appealing to a wider audience. There are very different outcomes from cricket and the Derby.”
Whatever the sport, Investec’s philosophy is embedded in a long term relationship. That 10 year deal with the ECB is in its fourth year. “There has been quite a bit of change at the ECB, so we’ve had to be patient as new people settle in,” says van Niekerk. “But we live in a volatile world, things change regularly. We’ve remained relaxed about the situation. The ECB has always collaborated with us and the relationship has been fruitful and worth it.”
Investec has also retained a relaxed outlook as to the travails of the England side. The past 18 months have been challenging, to say the least, with player and management upheaval, not to mention the changes at the ECB. This period has represented one of those intangibles that are inevitable in such a lengthy sponsorship deal. “The downside of such a long deal is, obviously, that it’s a gamble,” admits van Niekerk. With English cricket right now, it’s difficult to know what will happen in the next Test, let alone the next decade.
“But we’re commercial business people and we understand that you have good days and you have bad days – that’s life,” he adds. “We’re in this for the long run so we won’t get carried away either way. Of course we don’t like it when England do badly, but that’s cricket – it’s a capricious look on life, making you feel like a king sometimes and humbling you at other times.
“Also with things like the Kevin Pietersen situation (England’s star batsman was controversially sacked in 2014), it’s not for us to choose the team. We’re not the ones out there facing Mitchell Johnson – that’s Alastair Cook’s job!”
The positivity that Investec has for English cricket certainly suggests that there is great value to be derived from the sport; in the lengthy exposure, the targeted marketing, the growing global appeal. As a South African firm though, which is the biggest series for Investec?
“There is a rational and an emotional answer to that!” laughs van Niekerk. “On a rational level, it’s the Ashes. It’s just such a big series with such a broad appeal. It really fires up the English public. In terms of exposure, it’s the India series. The following in India is vast, so the exposure we get then is massive.
“Then, on an emotional level, as a company with its roots in South Africa, we eagerly anticipate the series against South Africa. We have English and South African born staff, there’s a lovely rivalry in the office when South Africa are in England.”
No matter the hard edged numbers involved in sponsoring sport, there is always an emotional connection. Van Niekerk speaks very passionately about cricket, not just from a brand perspective but from a sporting perspective. It has to feel right. That is one of cricket’s great selling points. It’s a very natural fit for some brands, with the romance of an English summer, the tradition of the Test match calendar and the following the sport has.
Investec isn’t just sponsoring a sport; it is sponsoring the English summer.
By Miles Reucroft