For the past eight years HSBC has been a title sponsor of the World Rugby Sevens Series, with the sport playing an important part in HSBC’s wider sponsorship portfolio. Leanne Cutts, HSBC’s Group Head of Marketing, talks to Sport Industry Insider about the Emirates Airline Dubai Rugby Sevens, which has grown to a competition of global renown from its humble roots.

Why is sport such an important part of HSBC’s sponsorship portfolio?

HSBC has been involved in sports partnerships for more than twenty years and we are currently a leading partner of five Olympic sports – golf, rugby sevens, tennis, cycling and badminton.

As a global banking and financial services organisation, HSBC has always aimed to be where the growth is, enabling businesses to thrive and economies to prosper. We pride ourselves on working in partnership with our customers to realise their goals and approach our sports partnerships in the same way. We are committed to working alongside each partner to help them innovate and grow.

Our portfolio of partnerships also gives us an engaging platform through which to deepen existing customer relationships and build new ones, in our most important markets. We are an active stakeholder and influencer, as well as an investor, within the sports that many of our customers across the world are passionate about.

How did the relationship between sevens and HSBC begin? 

HSBC was the first ever title sponsor of the World Rugby Sevens Series when it signed up in 2010 and is very proud of the role it has played to grow the sport over the last eight seasons.

Our support of the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series is built on a belief that rugby sevens has huge potential to grow the game of rugby. We’ve seen this happen to dramatic effect in the last couple of years, thanks to a number of factors including rugby sevens’ Olympic inclusion which has seen the sport’s global fan base increase by a quarter over the last five years.

According to a recent study by Nielsen, the sport has 793m fans globally, with the biggest growth markets being India, China and the USA – and 36% of fans now being women or girls.

The basis of our brand promise ‘Together we thrive’ is that in partnership we can achieve much more than we can on our own. Our partnership with World Rugby is focused on achieving a shared ambition of making rugby sevens a thriving global sport.

We have been working particularly closely with World Rugby to make sure that the women’s game is a key contributor to that growth, as we want to see diversity in its widest sense. Women’s rugby is one of the fastest growing sports in the world at the moment and has been adding close to 500,000 new players a year for the past few years.

We want to ensure that the women’s game is elevated to the same level as the men’s. This was one of the reasons behind the decision we took with World Rugby for more of this season’s legs to feature both men’s and women’s tournaments at the same venue.

How does the partnership extend beyond the events themselves?

Another crucial part of our title sponsorship of the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series is our international grassroots programme, helping children all over the world to experience the sport for the first time. We look at barriers to participation in key markets and develop our programmes accordingly. The 2017/18 series saw over 100,000 children engaged in grassroots globally, thanks in part to innovative projects in Hong Kong and the UAE which HSBC pioneered with local rugby partners to see rugby sevens become part of the school curriculum in those markets.

What has become increasingly clear over the last few years is that the role of a sponsor has changed dramatically. We see our role in a sport as not just supporting it financially, but also acting as a catalyst to help it grow.  Hospitality and event activation still have an important role to play, but we believe the partnership needs to run deeper.

The changing media landscape has also made a difference in this respect, increasing the importance of digital activations and supporting the wider fan community. Sponsorship now offers the ability to tell stories that provide fans with new experiences across new touch points. Our creation and publishing of documentary films such as ‘Sevens from Heaven’ and ‘The Pioneers’ for HSBC social channels are good examples of this new opportunity and have helped shine a brighter light on the sport to support its growth.

How important is the Dubai Sevens as part of the series? 

The Emirates Airline Dubai Rugby Sevens is one of the highest profile legs on the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series and a key part of our partnership programme. The first event on the men’s series –  and the second on the women’s – it has become synonymous with the incredible entertainment and action for which the HSBC World Rugby Series has become known.

Dubai is also one of the legs where both the men’s and women’s series take place alongside each other. We are hugely supportive of the bringing together of the men’s and women’s series because it helps give greater profile to the incredibly exciting women’s game.

Is there significantly more value as a title sponsor of an event? 

What is important to us is that we are seen as a ‘partner’ not ‘sponsor’. A partnership implies working in tandem to better a sport, and so our strategy is to associate ourselves with partners who reflect our business priorities and help us make connections with customers. Whether that be as a title sponsor or otherwise, we are committed to helping the sport grow.

Our work with the UAE Rugby Federation is a great example of this. For the first time earlier this year, rugby became part of the national curriculum across 207 schools in the region. That has led to many more children (36,576 year to date) being able to try the sport and enable it to put down deeper roots in the local communities. Perhaps the most pleasing aspect on this programme has been that 46% of these children were girls.

During the recent tournament in Dubai, we had rugby legends Brian O’Driscoll and Bryan Habana hosting an on-site skills zone activation promoting this initiative.

How do you measure the value of your sports sponsorship? 

We never comment on the specifics of our partnership investments but we robustly measure sponsorship in a number of different ways to evaluate its impact on our business and our brand. It is a great way of engaging existing and future customers; inspiring our staff; and connecting with the communities we serve.

Our strategy is to associate ourselves with partners who reflect our values and business priorities and help us engage with our most important audiences.

We know through experience how important it is to understand the passions of our customers, which is why our partnerships focus in these areas to help us build loyalty, nurture youth and embrace different cultures. All of which contribute positively to how our brand is perceived.

Is the Middle East an attractive region for sports sponsorship? 

The UAE and GCC are incredibly important to HSBC. The UAE has always used sport as a vehicle to attract people to the country and to showcase the nation to the world. Two of the UAE’s most important social sporting occasions are the Emirates Airline Dubai Rugby Sevens and Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championships, both of which HSBC is involved with. The demographics of the region lend themselves to be a test bed for new developments and it is quickly moving from hosting sport for entertainment’s sake to hosting sport for inspiration and providing people with richer experiences. This is all helping to put the UAE on the world map as a major investor and sponsor of sport.

How often do you re-assess your sports partnerships?

It is important our partnerships continue to reflect our brand; meet the needs and goals of our business; and are a sound investment. We also see partnerships as a great way to help us engage with new and diverse audiences around the world.

Our partnership with the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series is helping the bank to do all of this, which is why we recently renewed for another four years, taking us up until 2023.