After the Hollywood sign was revealed to be set up by National League sponsors Vanarama earlier in the month, our Brand Relationships Manager Darren Harsley caught up with Daryl West, Head of Social Media, Sponsorship and PR for the business behind the campaign to talk bravery in brand campaigns, managing risk, and the strategy behind the stunt.
Vanarama have been working with creative agency Dark Horses for almost two years now. Most recently prior to the Wrexham Hollywood sign, the agency developed the ‘New Lease of Life’ campaign launched by Vanarama in March this year.
The PR stunt came about relatively naturally.
“We mentioned our National League sponsorship in conversation during planning for the New Lease Of Life campaign. We wanted to use the National League as a platform to talk to a wider base of football fans about who Vanarama are and to bring attention to our car leasing business. It’s about becoming part of the football narrative and championing this level of football and punching up to the footballing elite. Finding the National League and its clubs a new lease of life!
We’d spoken about Wrexham and their owners a lot with Dark Horses whilst working on other National League social content with them and so we’d always be throwing ideas around.
A few months back, they approached us about putting a giant Hollywood ‘Wrexham’ sign on the slag heap in Wrexham. It just seemed perfect, so simple but we knew a lot of people would accuse Ryan Reynolds and Rob McEIhenney of doing it so it would give Vanarama the chance to hijack the conversation around the Hollywood Wrexham story for a week or two.
And that was pretty much it. With Dark Horses brilliant creative spark and our bravery as brand we felt it was a no brainer. I just thought ‘let’s just do it and see what fun we can have with it.’”
Assessing the risk
The campaign, while at face-value was a light-hearted bid for brand awareness, wasn’t without its risks. Given the impact of the pandemic, the relationship between the National League and the clubs (and by association, the fans) was already tense.
“The fans at this level are passionate and hardcore. We love it. But they’ll also tell you if they're not happy with something.”
The other obvious risk was the issue of favoritism – if the title sponsors of the league put a Wrexham sign up in Wrexham, it would naturally open them up to accusations of supporting Wrexham.
“We expected that criticism – “Why don't you do one in in Nottingham for Notts County”. – and we totally understand that from a rival fans point of view.
Ultimately though, the campaign is about celebrating the National League and the unveiling of the banner demonstrated that. Of course, Wrexham was at the centre, but the goal was to raise awareness of the National League season starting, and a lot of people loved it and more people were talking about the league and us as sponsor than the day and weeks before, so we did our job."
Delays to the campaign’s go-live
As with any PR stunt, Vanarama needed to wait for the right time to go live – and when Wrexham didn’t make it into the playoffs, the half-built Hollywood sign had to be taken back down.
“We literally had to call it off, halfway through. Then it was like, right, when's the next opportunity? We had to reassess. We knew the Wrexham documentary was going to be filmed for Disney plus around the same time as the season started, and that there would be a lot of headlines around Wrexham anyway. It was a bit of a perfect storm.”
Measuring success on a PR stunt
With something like the Wrexham National League campaign, it can be tempting to treat the campaign as a bit of fun – and one of the more common pitfalls of the goal of ‘brand awareness’ is the difficulty measuring any kind of return.
Still, Vanarama have managed to measure and track real outcomes of the campaign, from SEO performance to increased viewership of the league. It’s not just about the Hollywood sign though – building the stunt into a more rounded strategy that makes the most of the sponsorship is where the success has really landed.
“After the sign had built some hype, we unveiled the banners with ‘National League Season Premier Aug 2021’. It drove more people to mention our brand and talk about the National League. One of the best reputational outcomes of campaigns like this is that people are call the league ‘The Vanarama’. We’ve become synonymous with a whole level of football, there’s not many brands that have been able to do that in sport.
We also get a lot of added value on the SEO side. The coverage gave us links from high domain authority sites to our website, we were getting mentioned on ITV news, BBC etc. so really high value to us. Our CEO was running zoom calls with journalists talking about it, we were across Mashable, The Times, and others so we had all of these sites name checking Vanarama. It gets us that digital payoff alongside the overall brand equity you get from a stunt like that.
We’ve also gained a lot of social followers since the stunt – that increases our target pool to promote our business to if we want to. So there’s a range of benefits if you get it right."
Building proper brand-agency relationships
Daryl and the Vanarama team are well-versed when it comes to agency engagements, working with Dark Horses on the Wrexham project, but also working with GO! Network members Walker Agency.
“It’s all about fresh eyes sometimes. When you work in a brand you can sometimes get too close and wedded to your ideas and essentially create an echo chamber. The best brands have a great mix of agencies to offer fresh thinking and to challenge your hypotheses. Being in-house, you can become very insular and get precious about every little thing.
A good agency will offer an outside perspective and has a wider view of what's going on in other industries and what works for their other clients. You might not necessarily take all those ideas on, but it might just spark something a bit different in your thinking as well. So, it’s important to have good agencies that will push you creatively. But also, from an intellectual point of view, you sometimes need to be pushed to think differently at times and that can be hard when you’re so close to the action.”
What’s next for the Vanarama marketing strategy?
As the Vanarama team face challenges as a broader business with the global shortage of microchips and materials leading to a shortage of cars, the industry has had to adapt. As Vanarama have transitioned to e-commerce and undertaken digital transformation work, the pressure is on the marketing team to keep the momentum with building brand reputation and awareness.
“You have to be careful with PR stunts – you can’t do them all the time because they are often high risk and don’t always work. The narrative can also take on a life of its own. For example, we didn't expect this one to get as much attention as it did, and we were lucky the council didn’t ask us to take it down after one day.
We do have some more ideas in the pipeline though. Maybe not as big as Wrexham but ones that we believe will go down well, in particular on social media where we know most fan attention is. We’re trying to show our bravery as a brand and as a sponsor and that we want to build a good rapport and trust with football fans through positive PR for this level of football. There is more to come for sure.”
Vanarama is an award-winning personal and commercial vehicle leasing company. Our Brand Relationships Manager for Automotive Darren works free with Automotive brandsto find agencies that fit their needs. You can connect with him any time on LinkedIn, or by email here.