If you were compiling a list of the most successful sponsorship partnerships in sport over the past 20 years, the one between O2 and England Rugby would have to be very near the top.
Timing is everything of course, but when Cellnet, O2’s previous incarnation, decided to get involved in rugby union in 1995, just as the sport went professional, none of those who brokered the deal could ever have imagined the sport would enjoy such growth in interest and global involvement.
But here we are 20 years on, with England staging the biggest Rugby World Cup to date, and O2, despite not being an official sponsor of the tournament, engulfing our consciousness with their Wear the Rose campaign, which scaled new heights, widths and depths with the unveiling last week of the biggest outdoor projection in the world, all over the roof of the O2 in Greenwich.
Then there was the send-off event for the England squad, topped off by a concert from Take That and O2’s first ever animated advertising campaign, which aims to turn the England Rugby Team into giants through the power of support. Ronan Dunne, chief executive of O2, clearly does not do things by halves.
“This is very obviously a long-term partnership,” he says, “but you have to keep developing that relationship and being innovative. We are a brand with 25m customers, so our motives are not really about brand awareness.
We’re into activation, impact, involvement. And so in a rugby context, that means huge links with the grass roots of the game as well as the national side.”
The partnership element between the English game’s governing body, the RFU, and O2, was never better illustrated than after the England team’s embarrassing exit from the last World Cup in New Zealand four years ago, amid allegations of player misconduct. “All that happened just at the time of our contract renewal,” he adds.
“I’m sure a lot of companies would have seen it as an opportunity to walk away, but we were determined to help rebuild the reputation of the sport and make things better, alongside those at Twickenham. In many ways, it made our connection with England rugby even stronger as a consequence.”
It could hardly be more evidently robust. England jerseys with “wear the rose” emblazoned on them have been draped over iconic statues of the likes of Churchill and Boadicea all over the country, and last week, on the day of the opening ceremony and England’s first match against Fiji, O2’s 1850 employees were encouraged to “wear the rose from home”, following a similarly successful initiative during the London Olympics.
“In 2012, we ran the whole office operation on a skeleton staff of 20 with everyone else working from home supporting Team GB,” Dunne says. “It most certainly wasn’t a duvet day for 1850 people, but we found that every employee saved between 40 and 50 minutes a day on their work schedule by doing that, so it made economic sense too.
As a result, flexible working is now something we advocate for all of our people, and by encouraging it on Friday, we are uniting everyone who works for O2 behind a single objective.”
One snag of course, is that O2 has more than a few employees who are Welsh, Scottish, Australian – maybe even the occasional Fijian – who may not all want England to win. And there there are the Irish. Like Ronan Dunne.
“Everyone at the RFU knows that if Ireland play England, I’ll be cheering on the men in green,” he says.
“There is no question about that, and it might happen, although not until the semi-final. But – and it’s a big but – I and all of us will do everything in our power to ensure England are as successful as possible, because their success reflects on us. Our DNA is built into the way rugby has evolved and developed. These next few weeks are just the next stage in that continuing growth.”