The pitfalls of sponsorship: the Dulux Spurs debacle

About the author

Chris is a lecturer, media trainer, crisis communication consultant and coach. Her in-house roles have included the global position of Director of PR for Barclays. Chris leads the CIPR PR Diploma and Crisis Comms Diplomas. BA Hons, CAM, MCIPR

The view from Dr Kevin Ruck's seat at White Hart Lane - the home of Spurs football club.
The view from Dr Kevin Ruck's seat at White Hart Lane - the home of Spurs football club.

Sponsorship is a tried and tested way to develop your brand’s persona.  Basically, the idea being that the values associated with the sponsorship asset – be it a celebrity, event, sport or whatever – is transferred onto your organisation.  Some organisations look for sponsorship assets that give them what they don’t have.  A bank for example that is a bit staid may look for an association that can bring a bit of razzle, dazzle.  Or sponsorship can be used to reinforce existing brand values.  Rolex is an aspirational brand with a long-standing sponsorship connection to the upmarket sport of tennis.

This is the theory, of course, but something has just gone a bit awry with Dulux paints recently announced sponsorship of Tottenham Hotspur football club.

A marketing director for the company that owns Dulux said when announcing the sponsorship: “Our relationship with Tottenham Hotspur is a perfect synergy of two iconic British brands.”  But within minutes of the announcement the Twitter trolls were at work and it became clear Dulux was anything but prepared.

Now I have to declare an interest here as an Arsenal supporter (for the uninitiated that means Spurs is an arch enemy) but the rogue Tweets were hilarious to anyone.  It began with someone asking via Twitter if the Spurs trophy cabinet would be a good place to store tins of paint (it is some time since Spurs won any silverware.)  Unfortunately, Dulux Tweeted back a photo of an empty cabinet and a reminder that surfaces should be free of dust before painting.  Ouch!

I sought the views of my fellow PR Academy colleague (and Spurs fan) Dr Kevin Ruck.

It seems a bit of an odd sponsorship – where is the affinity?

It’s certainly got everyone talking about Dulux (and unfortunately, the Spurs trophy cabinet).  On Friday morning the talk on BBC Breakfast was whether there was a need for Dulux to apologise. They have now done so.  The initial Tweets by Dulux were quite cheeky but were then deleted and a quite formal apology followed. Spurs responded in good spirit saying that they were going to ‘gloss over it’.

Kevin continued: “So, did Dulux need to apologise?  Spurs fans will probably have taken it in good spirit.  Dulux has swung from being seen as a bit of a cheeky brand back to being very corporate. One wonders what phone calls were happening behind the scenes between those at the top of those organisations!”

It is a bit of a fun issue but it does raise some serious points about not just finding the sponsorship that delivers the brand values you want but understanding that that to make that affinity stick an audit of all communications and tone of voice needs to be undertaken.  Spurs manager, Jose Mourinho, when asked about the episode replied “What is Dulux?”  Another one who hadn’t been briefed.

There is an obvious point about authenticity here too.  I suspect the Dulux Twitter handler was trying to be authentic but how to keep that kind of informality going but not trash the sponsorship hadn’t been thought through.  Another completely unrelated insight into how hard this can be was also to be found in the world of football.

Up and coming Manchester City player, Phil Foden, fired his social media agency after a Tweet that was said to have thrown down the gauntlet to a fellow but rival player who he actually respected.  As former England star, Gary Neville, said: “Lads run your own accounts! Your independent thought and authenticity is at stake. It’s your voice, not anyone else’s.”  Quite.


Chris Tucker is the course leader for the PR Academy CIPR PR Diploma and Crisis Communication Diploma.