Major sporting events like Wimbledon have a unique ability to drive us, collectively, to a kind of fever pitch. Spectators will gather in city squares or parks to watch on huge screens, cram into whichever bars are playing the latest games, or just squeeze onto the sofa to watch at home.
This short-lived obsession that becomes the topic of every discussion and commands the attention of millions of consumers is a massive opportunity for brands — and brands of every variety at that.
Events of this caliber are an opportunity for host nations to fly their flags and attract tourism — while attendant celebrities want to ensure they’re snapped in the spectator seats looking their best. The organizations that regulate each sport are eager for a climactic face-off that will add to its year-round devotees, while the athletes themselves — whether individuals or teams — also have a chance to earn new fans.
And then there are the types of brands we’re more familiar with, the suppliers of kits, uniforms, equipment, the sponsors, advertisers, and, of course, the official partners. In short, an event like Wimbledon is a crucible for brands.
And while the Olympics and assorted world cups roam around the world, Wimbledon is a uniquely English affair — with a legacy and heritage that is all its own. So brands looking to win at Wimbledon have a number of other expectations to contend with, while they try to leverage “Wimbledon-mania” for their own gain.
In this article, we’re going to explore exactly how these various brands interact with the phenomena that is Wimbledon, how its unique identity is leveraged by the tournament itself and its official partners, and how its reverence for history and heritage is both a blessing and a curse.
Heritage and Official Partners
Brands can collaborate closely with sporting events by becoming official suppliers of equipment or services. For example, Slazenger has been providing Wimbledon with tennis balls since 1902.
However, such partnerships don’t necessarily have to be closely related to the sport in question. Just think back to 1896 when the first modern Olympic Games in Athens made Thomas Cook its “official travel agent”.
However these days, any brand looking to get in on the action at Wimbledon’s Centre Court faces an uphill struggle, as official partnerships aren’t just handed out freely. While clinching one can be an extremely lucrative move that allows brands to draw from Wimbledon's deep sense of heritage — a quick look at the official partners list suggests that brands may already require a particular heritage of their own if they're going to grace the lawns of Centre Court.
Just consider some of Wimbledon’s current partners — there’s Lanson (official champagne), Ralph Lauren (official outfitter), Jaguar (official car), Sipsmith (official Gin), and, of course, Pimms (no official designation provided).
If this all sounds very elitist, that’s because it is, and, though there’s HSBC, Vodaphone, and Oppo to balance things out a little — the sponsors ultimately appear to be handpicked to help cultivate Wimbledon’s own heritage-driven, aspirational brand identity. It’s clear that these brands are all precision-targeted at the sport’s traditionally “white, affluent” audience that is “still centered around London and the southeast of England”.
In 2022, the English squash brand, Robinson’s ended its 86 year partnership with Wimbledon, citing a desire to broaden its “summertime reach beyond the Wimbledon fortnight”. This may be a veiled reference to the narrow audience that Wimbledon appears to base its branding around is unclear or simply a case of the brands moving in separate directions with new priorities to consider.
A Quick Note On Ambush Marketing
Just because you’re not an official sponsor for an event, it doesn’t mean that you can’t jump onto the bandwagon and leverage it for your own brand’s gain. Ambush marketing is the art of (legally) stealing the spotlight from those brands that paid for the privilege, and there are some very clever ways to do it.
The most brazen examples can sometimes look like outright provocations — as in the below-pictured example from the London 2012 Olympics, where Irish bookmaker brand Paddy Power proudly proclaimed its status as an official sponsor of the largest athletic event in London (not the UK capital but a town in central France).
Typically, ambush marketing campaigns use OOH creatives placed near sporting events or freebies given to spectators before they enter the ground to sneak their brands into exclusive areas.
In 2016, pork jerky brand Peperami attempted to leverage Wimbledon-mania by handing out freebies to spectators as they queued to enter. However security staff, sensing an ambush, began confiscating them in alignment with rules that state “officials can confiscate objects or clothing which they believe to be part of a political message or ambush marketing.”
Indeed, Wimbledon has extremely strict rules designed to clamp down on these types of marketing campaigns and to project its inner circle of partnered brands. In 2014, colored sports bras and underwear were outlawed from the competition for this very purpose — though star-player Venus Williams tweeted her intent to disobey the rule and wear brightly colored items from her own Eleven collection.
Serving Up Starpower
The idea that sporting events offer unique branding opportunities isn’t new. While it might not have looked quite the same as modern sponsorship deals, it’s believed that even famous Roman gladiators could supplement their income by endorsing a particular supplier of wine or olive oil.
Star players can provide some of the biggest emotional hooks for sporting events, pulling in spectators who aren’t usually interested and, just as with Rome’s most famous gladiators, they present great opportunities for brands. This is demonstrated best by the overnight success of Emma Raducanu and the host of brands eager to showcase their partnership with her in the run-up to Wimbledon.
While the idea that anyone has cherished memories of walking into a branch of a bank sounds a little bit fanciful, ultimately, these campaigns work because they add credibility and can help clean up a brand’s image.
HSBC is a brand with a bit of an image problem after numerous scandals relating to money laundering and tax avoidance made headlines over the last few years. By focusing on Raducanu, HSBC not only shifts attention to one of the UK’s rising sports stars but also draws attention to their own support for nurturing talent and helping grassroots players rise up in the world of tennis with the HSBC Road To Wimbledon tournament.
Wimbledon’s Branding Issues
Wimbledon’s heritage as the oldest Tennis tournament in the world — and the most prestigious — is one of its brand's greatest assets. In the runup to the 2022 Wimbledon tournament, the competition celebrated 100 years since it moved to its current location (the actual club was founded in 1868) and made this a focal point of its marketing campaign.
We’ve already touched upon Wimbledon’s very exclusive inner circle of official partners and how this helps support the competition’s own heritage-focused brand — while also limiting its appeal to a very narrow segment of consumers.
However, it’s worth diving a little deeper into Wimbledon’s brand, because it commands a level of influence that other sporting competitions could only dream of. While its identity is unique with lots of positive elements to boast about, there’s an argument to be had that embracing heritage too heartily — as Wimbledon perhaps does — can also result in some serious problems for a brand.
First and foremost, Wimbledon — and by extension, tennis — lags far behind other sporting events when it comes to diversity. The body that owns and administers the Wimbledon grounds and competition, the AELTC has “no one from an ethnic minority on its board”.
The CEO of the AELTC, Sally Bolton, commented that “in line with many 100s of other organisations and other sporting organisations, whilst we have had done a lot of good work in this area already, we know there is a lot more we can do. And we will. We are very committed to that.”
The Wimbledon brand embraces its Victorian roots and celebrates the traditions that have made it stand out from other tournaments. But the sport’s overwhelming whiteness and the struggles that players from non-white backgrounds have faced in the past just to play in the competition also create an uneasy identity that is quite easy to criticize — especially when other sports are doing so much more to reflect modern Britain’s diverse population.
The problems that arise from the brand’s obsession with tradition don’t end there.
In particular, the all-white dress code isn’t just an issue for celebrity athletes wanting their endorsements to pop on the court. For female players, menstruation can be a huge concern, with the all-white dress code adding another layer of anxiety on top of its existing effects on performance.
Puerto Rican tennis champion Monica Puig highlighted how stressful it can be for female players to contend with the effects of periods when competing at Wimbledon, and while the tournament has adjusted its dress code in recent years to allow for "approved leggings and mid-thigh compression shorts”, with clothing of any color permissible as long as it is worn underneath the traditional whites — this doesn’t solve the issue that “leakages” still have the potential to be highly visible.
With one in four girls dropping out of sports in adolescence due to fear of period leakage, Wimbledon’s famously strict all-whites policy could be seen as yet another barrier between the brand and improved diversity and inclusion.
Wimbledon’s prestige, history, and heritage make it unique among global sporting events — it’s one that commands a powerful influence over consumers, even if it is currently limited to a narrow audience.
Like many other sports, efforts are being made to make Wimbledon and tennis more inclusive, but the brand’s emphasis on tradition may be standing in the way of progress here. While Wimbledon is right to be protective over its own brand, a more inclusive list of official partners could help it reflect the makeup of modern Britain and attract more diverse audiences to the sport. Indeed, the impact of Wimbledon-mania could be even greater if it appealed to everyone.