When you’re struggling at the bottom end of the League Two table, life can be hard. But that hasn’t stopped Stevenage FC, who have shown real ingenuity and foresight to become known the world over, as CEO Alex Tunbridge explains to Professional Player…
Stevenage Football Club and Burger King. On the surface, there’s a strange dichotomy to be found, yet dig a little deeper and you’ll discover an ingenious marketing ploy by the multi-national fast-food chain that has put the modest League Two club firmly on the map.
The biggest brands on the planet have long associated themselves with the biggest football clubs; for Emirates see Arsenal, Chevrolet adorn the front of the Manchester United shirt, while rivals City are inextricably linked with the Eithad aviation group.
The benefits are, of course, obvious, given the global reach of the Premier League, but ‘Boro’ have been kicking around the lower reaches of the English league pyramid for some time now, barely attracting 3,000 fans to their Lamex Stadium home, and rarely thrust into the football spotlight.
For those of us on the outside looking in, it appeared a highly unlikely – if intriguing – collaboration when the club’s new shirt sponsorship was announced in June 2019, yet for the clever marketing minds within, an ingenious plan had been hatched, which the club was only too happy to hang on the coattails of.
By their very existence, Stevenage FC also live in the virtual world through the EA Sports game, FIFA, so by sponsoring the club, Burger King worked out they’d receive exposure through this online gaming behemoth played by 10 million people worldwide. Stevenage CEO Alex Tunbridge takes up the story
‘We were initially approached by the David Agency, who look after Burger King’s account, as they’d seen what we’d been doing in the previous months,’ he told Professional Player. ‘We were in the process of re-branding, we were building a new North Stand through a fan-led bond scheme, and we’d launched the first interactive digital-only programme in the UK. We were also hosting the Billy Joe Saunders world super-middleweight fight at our stadium, so we’re doing things a little differently and being a bit more dynamic than other clubs at our level – and that turned their heads ever so slightly.
‘The benefits are, of course, obvious, given the global reach of the Premier League, but ‘Boro’ have been kicking around the lower reaches of the English league pyramid for some time now’
‘They also liked the idea that we had a history of being the underdog, coming up through the leagues and having to fight against so many bigger clubs around us, being so close to London. Once a meeting had been set up, the concept was revealed to us and so was the brand. The rest is history.”
However, the jewel in this particular marketing crown came when Burger King launched #TheStevenageChallenge, a social media challenge where fans were urged to play as the club, then post their best goals, skills or challenges, in return for free burgers, nuggets and fries from their nearest BK outlet. The challenge soon went viral and became a FIFA phenomenon.
‘We knew with the launch that this thing was going to take off and it did,” Alex added. ‘There were eight or nine challenges, run in 13 countries around the world, and the initial engagement was 1.6 billion impressions, with the campaign returning 2.5m of earned media.
‘We started receiving shirt orders from Paraguay, Chile, Argentina and across Asia. We might have shipped a few shirts in the past to ex-pats in Spain but this was now off the scale. Our shirt sales went up 300% which will be matched again this year. We now realise that maybe we’ve been underselling our shirt assets – not just us but all teams across Leagues One and Two. Maybe the value is no longer in the shirt being seen in the stadium but on a game like FIFA and on socials.”
The campaign played out to the backdrop of a team that, in the real world, was cut adrift at the foot of League Two and in real danger of seeing their ten-year Football League tenure come to an end. Yet those travails only heightened the interest in a club that had now extended its reach to all four corners of the globe.
‘Just because you’re not performing well on the pitch doesn’t mean you can’t perform well off it and we saw some significant increases in engagement with us,’ Alex points out. ‘People started reaching out to me, from the VP of Disney to the VP of marketing at Pepsi. We’re now also known in the esports world and have discussions on-going with other blue-chip companies who want to work with us. The theme is always the same, ‘Wow, how have you guys done this? It’s incredible!’”
We started receiving shirt orders from Paraguay, Chile, Argentina and across Asia. We might have shipped a few shirts in the past to ex-pats in Spain but this was now off the scale’
With Boro’s league campaign brought to a premature end last March due to the pandemic, the club sat bottom of the table with a pitiful three wins from 36 games – in fact, they’d gone through more managers than league wins – yet with no idea what division they would be playing in the following season, with relegation rivals Macclesfield Town spiralling towards the financial abyss. Boro were living on a knife-edge as a result, but that all paled into insignificance as the club got to grips with an altogether different opponent – coronavirus.
‘We were really quick out of the blocks and with our game against Newport called off on 14th March, we recognised the situation was going to get worse,’ Alex recalls. ‘We knew people in our community we’re going to be isolated quickly, with no infrastructures in place, so we worked with our foundation to set up a careline. We also worked with local food banks to help distribute and collect food, and we provided a free sandwich service so those most at risk were guaranteed at least one meal a day.
‘It was full-on for 16 weeks but the emotional impact only hit home after we transitioned out. People were sending us messages, videos and cards; we had an email from a lady at the other end of the country who thanked us for sending sandwiches to her mum and we even had cheques in the post from fans of other clubs who had heard about the work we had been doing. It had a big impact on the local community – which is of course is our core support and always will be – and the further positioning of the club as well.”
Given their foresight both on and off the pitch, it was almost fate that the football gods would be shining down on this particular part of north Hertfordshire. After the EFL won an appeal, a suspended four-point deduction – some 17 handed to the club over the season – was applied to Macclesfield Town in August, dropping them to the foot of the table and handing Boro a Football League reprieve.
The feelgood factor accelerated further towards the end of last year when it was announced that Burger King would now be sponsoring the club’s women’s team. Another ingenious marketing move saw the shirt sponsor renamed Burger Queen – with Boro going viral once again. ‘The Burger Queen sponsorship has had just as big an impact and hopefully, it’s a bit of a watershed moment in terms of the sponsorship industry and women’s football.
‘We’d been keen to bring the women’s sponsorship into our main sponsorship package, in order to support them and the challenges they face. If life can be hard in League Two, it’s even harder for the women. Previously, they’d not had the support that they deserved but now, thanks to Burger King’s input, they are on equal terms with the men.’
So what has become of the worst team in England since?
Since the turn of the year and a winter transfer window in which they strengthened a squad that now befits League Two instead of the National League, Boro have climbed the table under Alex Revell – who has been ably assisted by his former Brighton & Hove Albion boss Dean Wilkins. Off the pitch, too, the club continues to lead the way.
‘We’ve launched a share offering, the first club to do it, where there’s a 25% dividend on promotion to League One and 75% to the Championship, which has raised £350,000,’ Alex concludes. ‘We’re also looking to welcoming back our fans, where they can finally experience our new North Stand, which offers fantastic conference facilities, a new ticket office, disabled facilities and, of course, a matchday bar.
‘But we can never stand still; we’re also hosting a 14-day stadium concert series this summer and we have other ideas that we hope will come to fruition this year. In what has been a really testing period, both on and off the pitch, we’ve remained calm and calculated. We’ve been forward-thinking and maintained some stability in what are tough times economically – and it’s those clubs who find that foresight and strength who will ultimately stay
out of trouble.’