In June, Executive sat with Mick Desmond, commercial and media director, and James Ralley, head of marketing and commercial, at the All England Lawn Tennis Club Wimbledon, to discuss how the tennis club envisions its brand promotion through collaboration with luxury brands such as Rolex.
E: How do you promote your brand to the world and what role does Rolex play in that brand promotion?
Mick Desmond: We always try to tell the story that Wimbledon is tennis in an English garden, and in the UK everyone understands what that means. If you go to China or South America or the Middle East, they don’t always know what an English garden looks like. We’ve done a lot of research over the last three to four years with Kantar Media to try to get an understanding of how our brand is perceived. When you mention Wimbledon, everyone says tennis, and they know it’s a great tennis event. Although tennis is the core of our brand, we think that it is one of those events that transcends the sport. It’s about the occasion, the fashion, the food, the wine, the strawberries, the Royal Box. We are embarking on a new global campaign and over the past four or five years we have been building up our digital assets in accordance with our brand. IBM has been our partner for 30 years, and in the beginning, they suggested we try things in a similar way to other sporting brands; but we were determined to do it our way. Rolex were fantastic when we pitched to the club for a budget, which we hoped would drive up our digital strategy. When we renewed with Rolex four or five years ago, they were great in terms of taking that leap of faith with us and also have a prominent position in terms of all our digital assets. We now have the likes of Arsenal Football Club and the NFL coming to us about digital assets. We swept up all the digital awards at BT Sports awards, as well as many others. We’ve come a long way, but we’re never satisfied. I think that this is the strength of Wimbledon. We have an obsession with wanting to better ourselves.
Last Friday, at the player meeting, our head of player liaison showed the players a film called The List. The title is a reference to a list of things that need fixing, which comes from both the players and the staff. By showing the film, we were able to say “look, we do really cover the list.” Every year we have a list of about 2,000 items, which comes from everyone and we act upon them. We look at them in terms of priority, and see how we can better ourselves all the time. That’s the essence of the brand’s campaign. About 20 or 30 years ago, understandably, the club was obsessed with the site itself. This still remains, but what we are now trying to do is take everything that is world class about this event and bring it to a worldwide audience. We don’t just rely on our broadcaster, we try and work with our partners to push the Wimbledon brand. The essence is very much the pursuit of greatness, by striving for perfection. We have 13 partners and Rolex is probably one of the most important, which works fantastically for them. It’s a platform, which helps us reach a wider audience. We have 10 media partners, which deliver about 85 percent of our global audience, so we don’t have to talk to hundreds of different broadcasters. We’ve sat down with them over the past 18 months and spoken to them and started to talk with them about how we can work [together]more closely. Our media partners are the biggest communicators of our brand so we’ve been very enthusiastic about how much they want to get involved. After the championships we will be visiting our partners and doing a full review. They all have a thirst for more content. Beyond the tennis, they want to know how the menus are prepared, how the Royal Box works, how do the strawberries get delivered, how do you make the perfect Pimms. There are so many different stories that we can give them to provide them the context and allow them to create a much richer narrative about the championships. Tennis is still at the core. We never want to stop being the biggest and best tennis event in the world.
James Ralley: This is the first year that we have created content and our ambition is to use this as a platform and over the next five to 15 years invest more particularly in the men’s game, and to make the brand and audience grow. Hopefully this will inspire people to play the game.
E: Your job must be difficult when you don’t have big characters playing in the games?
MD: I used to come to Wimbledon a lot, and when you had players like [Boris] Becker, [John] McEnroe or even further back with the likes of people like [Jimmy] Connors. And now when someone like Roger Federer arrives on the scene with a ponytail and is followed by players like Rafael [Nadal], you wonder what they are going to be like. What we’re looking for is the next great wave of players to come through. We are like a great theater; we try to present the best global stage for these fantastic talents to play on. We don’t know who the actors or actresses are going to be, but we try to provide the best stage for them to play on.
JR: We don’t compete against the other Grand Slams, we actually work together. It’s all about how we can inspire people to come and play and want to be a professional tennis player. We hope the uniqueness of these events will inspire people.
MD: We do think that the more perfect the stage, the more inspiration they have. The players say that they were inspired by watching Wimbledon as children. We just try to create the best possible platform that we can.
E: What other values do you and Rolex share?
MD: We both have a huge heritage and an attention to detail. Like Rolex, we perceive ourselves as offering a luxury experience. Everyone has a visit to Wimbledon on their bucket list, much like owning a Rolex. People aspire to have a Rolex. There have been plenty of well-known, global brands which have approached us to be partners and we’ve simply said no. We respect the Rolex brand and they respect us, and I think that makes us work in harmony.
JR: There is a quiet innovation in both brands. There is a phrase that we use quite a lot which is that Wimbledon is always changing, but staying the same. We feel that Rolex has a similar philosophy.
MD: We understand what Rolex are trying to achieve. We’ve both been around for a long time. It’ll be Wimbledon’s 150th anniversary in 2018. I think the other similarity that we have is that we are both fairly private. We don’t go and shout about things. We have a private membership club, who basically control the championship and the club. Like Rolex, we don’t talk about our figures or revenues. We both have foundations and social responsibilities which we spread across the regions. So we have a lot of similarities and you can see why it is such a great synergy. I think it’s tradition blended with innovation. We had a very good press session with IBM, who spoke about what you can learn from your past. He said that the brand which protects its heritage best is the brand that keeps innovating. Complacency is your worst enemy. You have to keep moving on. You can’t sit still.
E: What’s your master plan moving forward?
MD: The club came to this location in 1922. We previously didn’t own a large amount of this land. It was a rugby club, and the land was bought in mid 60s, knowing that it would not have access to the land until the late 70s, but with the ambition that it would become Court 1 and practice facilities. The club also bought a golf course in the 80’s, but the lease does not go through until 2041, so we know we’ll have it then, but we are trying to get it ahead of that date. The whole rationale of that is that we don’t want to be land locked. This helps us keep with our idea of tennis in an English garden. On August 1 they are going to start removing the roof from Court 1, which will be completed by 2018, much like Centre Court in 2007. Then part of the roof will be put back on, although we will also be building 17 new suites with balconies around it, and in 2019 the retractable roof will be put on Court 1. So when it’s raining we will be able to seat around 29,000 people across the two courts. As soon as that is finished in 2019, the indoor courts will be demolished and replaced by brand new indoor courts with a tunnel between them and the club which has already been built and will be opened up soon. We always have a long term plan. Whilst a large amount of the surface goes to the Lawn Tennis Association for the growth of tennis, we also take quite a large proportion off to reinvest into the business. There has always been a long term plan. They usually last ten years and then once they are completed a new long term plan is mapped out. We all know where we are going and a lot of time is spent making sure that everyone in the team understands where they fit into that long term plan and what our ambition is.
E: Considering the global economic problems, how have you coped with finding the right sponsors that are willing to follow your vision?
MD: Obviously large proportions of our revenue come from our broadcast partners. The broadcasters understand that if we push into the US market they are going to get a return and then are capable of paying us more while maintaining their margin. We have seen our revenues grow strongly each year. We’ve just had a new debentures process for Court 1 where we increased the debentures by 86 percent and we were oversubscribed. When we did it a year ago on Centre Court by 104 percent, we were oversubscribed. We’re not complacent or arrogant, but the more we create strength in our brand the greater value it has.
E: How have new technologies affected your brand?
MD: We want most of our global media partners – the BBC in the UK, ESPN in the US, Fox Asia in Southeast Asia – to take as much content as they can. Most of them have eight or nine channels, so they aren’t just showing the Centre Court games. Alongside that we work very closely with our broadcast partners to celebrate our digital assets. We don’t want to compete with them on long form content. We have our own channel which is “Live at Wimbledon” and we have some live action, but it is short form. We’ve made an agreement with our partners that we can show one game per set per hour of any game happening. It’s usually something like Roger closing the first set, and if you’re in the UK it will say that you can follow this game live and exclusive on BBC One or if you’re in the US you can follow on ESPN 1. If people want to watch live action then we can tell them where to go.
E: Have you been approached by the likes of Google or YouTube or Netflix?
MD: All the time. We have relationships with some. On YouTube we do have Live at Wimbledon going out.
JR: In terms of it becoming a main point of broadcast, for us it’s more of an extension of our media partners. We have an excellent relationship with them, but in five or ten years we don’t know. It’s interesting times.
E: So you haven’t felt the switch between new media and traditional broadcasting?
MD: I think that we see online media as more of a means of marketing and communications. We have done some fantastic stuff with Facebook and we’ve done some stuff on Snapchat. But it’s more about us marketing, rather than allowing them to sell advertising around us. We don’t want that. Because we are a strong brand I think they respect that. We’ve lived through different media models. I’ve worked for a network television station for over 20 years, and we’ve gone from terrestrial network to subscription and now we are in a completely different media landscape. It will continue to change and we want to be on the leading edge. We will see where we can take our brand without undermining our brand.
JR: We very much believe in a proof of concept strategy. We want to see something working and then we’ll make the leap.
E: Would you say that you are trying to develop a strategy around lifestyle with your brand?
MD: We have quite a big strategy coming next year where we want to celebrate the food and wine of Wimbledon. We have a renowned chef who oversees all the menus of Wimbledon, and in fact his son is now taking over. We have fine wines from around the world. One great thing is that a lot of the tennis fans that come to Wimbledon come from some of the world’s best wine producing countries. We’ve been talking about having our own garden at the Chelsea Flower Show, which is huge in the UK and covered by the BBC. Should we grow our own pears or create our own honey? And with fashion, from 2017 we’ll have our own designers creating our own line of clothes and products, so that’s something that we think will grow. But we want to ensure it’s done in a stylish and proper way.
JR: When you’re looking at the audience on site and the audience watching at home, it’s a great blend. There are lots of people who love tennis and are very passionate about it, but we’re aware that there are lots of people who just come for a day out just to enjoy the occasion as much as the tennis. We like to see Wimbledon as a cultural event as much as a sporting event.
MD: The Royal Box is a ‘money can’t buy’ ticket. The only way that you can get in there is to be invited by the chairman. You’ll have fantastic global sports stars, royalty, politicians or actors, so it’s a wonderful part of our brand. There is a huge clamor for people wanting to be in there. Much like us turning down brands, we also turn people away from the Royal Box.
E: Can Wimbledon develop outside of the UK?
MD: We’ve been approached by the Middle East and China. Our worry would be that we wouldn’t be running it. One of the things that we do is ‘The Road to Wimbledon’, which has been running in the UK for 14 years now and three years ago we took that to India. It’s for children under 14 who compete and come to Wimbledon to play in a tournament in August. It’s like a mini Wimbledon. We took that to China this year and Rolex came as our partner. How can we take tennis, and especially playing on grass, to different parts of the world? I think with something physical, you have to be very careful. Rolex doesn’t allow anybody to create the workings of their watches outside the company. You see lots of brands that go international and you have to wonder whether it is still the same brand. There is a mystique about Wimbledon which we are guardians of. It’s tempting to pull the curtain back, but you don’t want to reveal everything.