Flora's race exit branded 'bizarre'

LONDON - Unilever's decision to pull its long-standing sponsorship of the London Marathon has baffled many in the industry.

Last week's announcement that Unilever brand Flora is to quit as the high-profile sponsor of the London Marathon after 2009 came as a shock to many in the sponsorship and food industries.

Speculation has emerged that finance brand ING is targeting the sponsorship to fulfil its strategy of backing the world's biggest marathons. However, it has not commented on this, and Unilever refused to comment on rumours it had been outbid.

Paul Nevett, the company's marketing director, foods, praised the results of the sponsorship, saying that it had driven health perceptions for the brand and increased public awareness of its heart-health message.

But, he added that Unilever wants to seek other ways to 'challenge public perceptions' about heart health, placing a greater focus on an educational message around the benefits of 'good' fats such as those in Flora.

The Flora tie-up, which began in 1996 when it succeeded Mars as the event's sponsor, was widely recognised as an ideal fit for the brand, which has based its positioning on the concept of heart health.

Over the years, Flora has used the sponsorship as a launch pad for products including its pro.activ. It has also used the event to back integrated campaigns, most recently the 'You don't have to run a marathon to love your heart' work.

The brand is also preparing a fight-back against butter. Consumption of the latter had been on a downward trend, but sales have picked up in the past year, according to Nevett. 'That's an issue for Flora and the health of the nation,' he added.

None of this clarifies why Unilever feels the London Marathon is no longer the most effective way to push its health message.

One marketing industry insider, who has worked on the Flora brand, said: 'In terms of the sponsorship's value, the figures were always good. You get TV coverage all day, and it is a unique sporting event because you get the top athletes and national involvement by the public.'

The source speculated that the restructure of Unilever's marketing department could be the cause of the change of strategy. Richard Tolley, group marketing development director of Dairy Crest and a former Unilever marketer, said the decision was 'intriguing'. 'Flora has been very successful in owning heart health via the sponsorship,' he added.

Tolley said the brand strategy for Flora's main product is now at a 'crossroads', as it has had its sales cannibalised by its Omega-3 variant. He added that the tie-up might be suffering a plight that affects many long-running sponsorship deals, whereby consumers no longer associate the name with a product.

The news has set the sponsorship industry abuzz, as the event is regarded as a highly sought-after property.

Steve Martin, chief executive of M&C Saatchi Sport & Entertainment, described the decision as a 'massive shock', citing the length of time it takes to attain the awareness the brand now enjoys.

'It has been a standout sponsorship. It's rare that you get such a perfect fit, particularly the way the Flora brand has been going,' he said. 'At a time when brands are moving away from TV advertising toward experiential marketing, it seems bizarre.'

Whether or not the marathon's next sponsor is ING, whoever takes up the mantle will have a tough time shaking off the Flora connection

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