The NRL has launched its 2016 season push with an ad devoid of celebrity as the code abandons rock star-driven marketing in favour of a campaign giving ownership to the players and fans, with the line: ‘Be there when history happens’.
The work is the first to come from Sydney agency Archibald Williams, which was handed season-launch creative duties after more than a decade with MJW – which as Hertz Walpole created the first Tina Turner campaign for the code in 1989 setting the NRL on a path of marketing reliant on big songs and bigger stars.
Over the years the NRL launch has been supported by Jon Bon Jovi, Jimmy Barnes, Jessica Mauboy, the Hoodoo Gurus, Tom Jones, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Chumbawumba, Robbie Williams and one highly-criticised effort featuring author Tom Keneally.
However, NRL director of commercial Andrew Abdo told Mumbrella the time had come for the code to take a different direction and engage the fans more – even though some might be disappointed the season is not kicking off with a huge anthem.
The new campaign opens with the premiership-winning field goal by Jonathan Thurston for The Cowboys in last year’s grand final – a moment in history Abdo believes has given the code the license to take its new approach – before cutting to footage of the same moment captured by fans on their phones and supported by a season-long hashtag #HistoryHappens.
Fan footage will play a large part in the campaign as the season progresses.
The campaign was designed to lure fans to the games and to be part of the moments all season long – where they can see ‘history happen’ live.
“We wanted to change the way we look at marketing and we wanted to be a lot more strategic around the different ways that we interact with fans and stakeholders in the game,” Adbo said.
“So we developed a new structure and we also had different verticals around how we wanted to position ourselves – not just being about big bang and premiership, but to get people thinking about what our brand stands for in the community; getting more people playing the game.
“The premiership, of course, is right at the centre of the game and it dominates the calendar for 24 rounds, 26 weeks, and then there’s the NRL pinnacle moments of major events: Origin; finals.”
Adbo said the time is right for the NRL to explore new ideas.
“In previous years we have had big artists and big track campaigns; this is very different though,” he said.
“It is celebrating organically the core of the product, which is really exciting.”
A mixture of footage captured by broadcast partners Nine and Fox Sports, as well has footage captured and shared on social by fans at the games will be rolled into the campaign over the course of the season to build out the social media promise of capturing history-making moments.
“On any given weekend you are going to see some amazing athletes do some amazing things. What we want the campaign to showcase is that when you are there it takes on a whole new dimension.”
While the ad kicks off with Thurston’s winning kick, the campaign goes on to show every game has “magical moments”, often captured by fans on their phones.
“It’s not just about the advert, it’s about multiple channels. ‘Be there when history happens’ is about going to the game,” he said.
“So we will build this content throughout the season and have pinnacle moments throughout the year. All of these lend themselves to building excitement, building a content piece where fans can contribute.
“It’s the first time we have integrated a big campaign into all our touch-points – social, digital, press, poster, outdoor, etcetera.
“It’s the first time, at this scale, we are using an invitation for fans to be part of the storyline throughout the season. This is creating a two-way conversation and I haven’t seen it at this scale in the NRL before.”
Archibald/Williams executive creative director Matt Gilmour said pulling together the footage from fans and marrying it with the broadcast footage was a mammoth task, but the approach would come into its own as fans shared footage using the hashtag.
The agency admits that relying heavily on social for engagement throughout the season and using the ‘history happens’ hashtag potentially opens the campaign up to abuse by fans if and when a player is involved in an indiscretion.
“We can’t control and influence the way the way players behave, but what we can control is what the standards are and how (the NRL) reacts when player does something that doesn’t adhere to our values,” said Abdo.
“The same thing applies to fans, so in the new world where you invite people to have an opinion there has to be a set of boundaries that reflect our values system, so just as we would take action against a player who steps over the line, conversations online have to be appropriate and align to our values.”
He said that “official” conversation online would be monitored and the NRL would be guardians of the conversation.
A teaser piece was launched a week ahead of the campaign last week, with a reach of 1.2 million and a 65% completion rate.
It also trended nationally on Twitter without any promotion.
Sponsors and broadcast partners will also be urged to make use of the hashtag to further promote campaign engagement.
The campaign will be used to change the way the NRL uses its contra airtime for promotion as part of its broadcast agreements, allowing the code to use the spots much more tactically.
“They will be much more agile and involve things as they unfold over the season,” Abdo said.
The approach will also be used to drive participation, which will link through to the league’s other areas of engagement.
“There is a lot of work going in to how we market participation. Getting more people involved in the game is multi-faceted.” Abdo said.
The biggest challenge the campaign faces is getting people to move on from the rock star-driven campaigns of the past.
“I think people are used to a big, catchy song. This (new campaign) is celebrating the fact that you don’t need a big artist, you don’t need a big, catchy song, you just need to be at the stadium where it’s pure entertainment and gives you and experience – an X-factor.
“Our biggest challenge will be how this is received because it is so different from the past.”