Above-par investment?

As the Ryder Cup gets into full swing, the world of golf and the competition’s select sponsors are firmly in the spotlight. After shrewdly securing a worldwide partnership deal for the 2014 and 2016 events, Edinburgh-based Standard Life Investments has a front-row seat to support its global brand strategy while 12 of Europe’s top golfers take on the best that the USA has to offer.

Glamour and razzmatazz are words not often associated with golf and investment management, but plenty will be on display even before the first shot is struck at the Hazeltine National Golf Club in Chaska, Minnesota. At such an event, players and their partners are constantly on show, kitted out from head to toe in matching team uniforms from the opening ceremony through to the final putt. Spectators lucky enough to have a ticket will be spoilt for choice of entertainment both on and off the course, and engaging with different brands throughout their visit. Meanwhile corporate hospitality will also be on the cards with opportunities for companies to schmooze with their key clients and prospects (admittedly something that is less straightforward for retail-oriented asset managers in Europe these days).

Ironically, golf participation has been declining on both sides of the Atlantic while the Ryder Cup has become one of the world’s biggest sporting spectacles – luring substantial interest and revenues from sponsors and the media. Sponsorship opportunities at this prestigious event follow the Olympic model of tiered levels of endorsements. At the premium level are five official partners consisting of: Rolex, BMW, Johnnie Walker, EY and Standard Life Investments. With the event broadcast around the world to more than 180 countries, international exposure is guaranteed.

Sport sponsorship is big business, with the Olympics and the World Cup the flagship events. According to PWC, the 2014 World Cup generated £900m in revenues from 20 sponsors. For the sponsors to reap rewards in return and be accountable to their shareholders, they must have metrics in place to assess the impact of the relationship. Areas such as increased brand awareness are more easily measured, and social and digital media have provided a new dimension to engagement and measurement too, but the effect on the bottom line is often less immediately discernible.

Many asset managers sponsor events in areas such as the arts and sport as marketing teams seek to position their firms top of mind with investors. The association of sport with performance, teamwork, endeavour and passionate fans provides a natural fit for asset managers’ aspirations. European asset managers have aligned themselves with various sports, including tennis, rugby, sailing, skiing and, of course, golf. Links between golf and asset management are not just focused on the big global events – Aberdeen’s sponsorship ranges from grass-roots level up to the world’s elite players and tournaments.

On paper, at least, the relationship of golf and asset management could be seen as a marriage made in heaven with both linked to a target market of predominately middle-aged, affluent customers. But both face some very similar issues in engaging and delivering to converts and prospects. Images of elitism, aloofness, and an uninspiring and intangible product offering, particularly for younger audiences, provide even the most innovative sales and marketing professionals with a very hard sell. The Ryder Cup is, in contrast, usually far from dull and a perfect opportunity for both to thrive in the spotlight.

I suspect that Standard Life Investments’ partnership with the Ryder Cup will be one of the biggest sponsorship deals going for a European asset manager. Increasing brand recognition through the media, traditional billboards and merchandising around the venue are naturally key parts of its marketing mix for the event. Combined with digital technology and an abundance of golfing content, the company is very much involved in the ‘spectator experience’. This is something it did very well at Gleneagles and I expect it will it take to a new level at Hazeltine. Off the course, the brand will extend beyond the traditional golfer reaching a massive audience through TV coverage, advertising, and digital content on the event’s official website and the Ryder Cup app.

While the cost of this exclusive arrangement has not been disclosed, Standard Life will be expecting a significant return on investment, both in brand recognition and, ultimately, client conversion and sales flows. The firm’s European assets under management and brand ranking both increased in 20151. How much of this can be attributed directly to brand-building activity as opposed to product demand is impossible to measure but both have to work in synchrony to achieve results. The US market is a key part of the firm’s future strategy and it will be looking to build further traction there from the Ryder Cup. Clearly, this is a long-term investment that’s worth keeping an eye on.

As a golf fan myself (in case you hadn’t guessed), all that remains to be said is: come on Team Europe and Team US!

  1. Sources: Broadridge FundFile and Fund Buyer Focus.