John Harwood-Bee is chairman of sponsorship and events marketing company Project 100 Communications and of communications company Figment Group Ltd and is on the board of several other companies. During his long international business career he has worked with many of the worlds leading brands advising on marketing, promotion and sponsorship. For the past 15 years and until his recent disappearance, Project 100 managed the marketing and PR of the record setting projects of adventurer Steve Fossett. This included the multi million dollar sponsorship of the “Playstation”/”Cheyenne” sailing programme.
Having sailed a variety of dinghies from the age of ten Harwood-Bee became a committed multihull enthusiast when he discovered Shearwater and then Tornado catamarans. A keen observer of the sailing scene he follows Ocean racing and record setting closely. During leisure time he continues to sail both mono and multihull yachts.
Until the 32nd America’s Cup, I had, in recent years, shown little interest in what I perceived to be a ‘spitting contest’ for a few ‘yachtsmen’ with giant egos and bigger bank balances. The questionable ethics of 1987 and other rows had left a sour taste and the feeling that a once great event had degenerated into farce. That opinion started to change for the better in New Zealand, but faltered again with the seemingly political choice of Valencia as the venue for 2007. In addition, I admit I have never been a great fan of match racing. What changed my attitude and grabbed my attention was the surprisingly good marketing campaign surrounding the 32nd cup. Suddenly, here was an opportunity to widen the appeal of the event and ACM and the teams grabbed it with both hands. My scepticism over the ACTS was soon to be proven ill founded, as the travelling circus attracted significant crowds wherever it went. In Valencia, the formerly uninspiring city developed into a place that people wanted to visit. Never mind the potential wind problems, here was a city hell bent on putting itself and the AC on the European map. Whatever the reason for Bertarelli choosing this venue, and there is speculation on that, it paid off. Money poured in from local and national government and challengers abounded as sponsors identified the advantages. Private development, as well as government, produced a plethora of new apartments and hotels. By the final race, in June 2007, the supporting statistics were impressive and the PR and press column inches ran into six figures. Here had been laid the base for the successful future of the oldest sporting event in the modern world.
So what went wrong? You are the ‘temporary’ custodian of the brand leader in match racing, being congratulated on all sides and with the possibility to enhance the product even further. Why then take a number of courses of action that, even to the most junior marketing executive, could be seen to devalue everything that had been so recently built up. Not being a mind reader I have no answer for Ernesto’s behaviour, but I do humbly offer him the following advice.
If it 'aint broke. Don't fix it.
This is one of the oldest adages in marketing and peril awaits those who choose to ignore it. By way of example, think of the disastrous British Airways livery campaign. An attempt to become ‘less British’ backfired when it destroyed the very attributes on which the company’s success was built. If that is not example enough, consider the ludicrous renaming of the British Post Office as ‘Consignia’, a disaster of such mega proportion that had to be rapidly reversed. Change for change sake is a bad thing and the custodians of the AC should avoid this.
The America’s Cup has always been about glamour, riches and aspiration. That is what attracts the public interest and in turn attracts the upmarket sponsorship of brands that identify with that ethos. Reduce the cup to little more than a Super World Match Series and you will lose them. Louis Vuitton was obviously sufficiently concerned with the current commercialisation to withdraw. Any further ‘dumbing down’ and sponsors will head for the life rafts.
The majority of the changes being suggested to the Deed of Gift should be disregarded. Most of what is being suggested changes the cup beyond recognition and devalues it. If Bertarelli has his way, what he proposes will not be the Americas Cup.
One point, however, is worthy of further consideration; that of a permanent ACM, representing the interests of all parties. The experience accumulated by such a body would be valuable to any defender and would offer consistency. Setting up ACM was a good idea; it enabled the Defender to concentrate on design and sailing, whilst its commercial arm did its job. Why not modify ACM, bring non defender people onto the Board. It can then be seen to truly represent the challengers, as well as the defender. Modify the deed to make ACM a permanent fixture, then a team that won would have its experienced services to organise the Cup according to that team's vision, thus cutting down on time spent organising venues and setting management infrastructure in place.
Let me address some of the other points:
Should the Defender automatically be qualified for the final America’s Cup Match, or should all teams start on equal footings?
Without doubt the defender should be in the final match. Without that it is not the America’s Cup and goes against everything the cup has stood traditionally for.
Should the schedule of venues and content of regulations be announced several cycles in advance allowing planning and funding?
In my opinion, absolutely not. Once again this is not part of the America’s Cup. This item alone could lead to the sort of problems associated with Olympic city selection and please God we never have to face that sort of corruption in our sport. Plus, it takes away the right of the defender to specify the venue, a right embedded in the DoG.
Should the governance of the Cup become permanent and be managed by entities representing past and current trustees as well as competing teams?
This is an item that merits further discussion. How that would be viewed by NYSC I do not know but a combination of interested parties, including NYSC, could possibly be a good thing.
Other points that are not so onerous could be amended such as that requiring the challenging club to have a sea based regatta. The NYSC dispensed with the need for the vessel having to arrive at the venue on its own bottom, some years ago, as not necessary today and dispensing with the regatta on the sea requirement could open the competition. Imagine a team from Hungary or other Swiss clubs in the not too distant future.
Viewed from a marketing perspective I am concerned that the cup has suffered short term damage as a result of the court case and the most recent indecision by Alinghi. What is urgently needed is consensus to get the cup back on track, to create the impression of a professional event and to restore the currently tarnished image to that higher level enjoyed only a few months ago. Whilst recognising that the America’s Cup has traditionally been a rich man’s playground, in the current economic climate even the Bertarellis and Ellisons of this world will become reluctant to fund the multi million dollar campaigns out of their own pockets. If we are to continue to enjoy the America’s Cup, the ACTS and to see a dozen challengers out on the water we have to have sponsors. Without them the less well funded teams cannot compete. Sponsors need returns on their investment and, until the AC gets its ACTs together, I for one would not recommend a client to become involved.
For a man who was capable of building the family business to such success Ernesto is showing a surprising lack of foresight. What is driving him is known only to those privileged to receive his confidence. From being the good guy to some, he is now the villain to most. His latest machinations could lead to the destruction of the thing he professes to love. I respectfully suggest that come January 1st the warring factions make a New Year’s resolution to turn back from the brink, sit down with all interested parties and get the cup back on track. Without an initiative the AC brand will be as worthless as Enron shares.