A sponsored walk round the big top

Wily marketers have found that the tent now known as The O2 is providing the perfect schmoozing environment. Ian Burrell reports
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The Independent Online

Underneath the main arena of the O2, the world’s busiest music venue, there is a small room with a high security entrance that houses the most advanced technological gadgets, protected by a locked glass cabinet like the diamond in a Pink Panther movie.

Inside this cabinet is a diminutive robot called Papero, apparently capable of running a bath, opening the curtains and entertaining the kids. There’s also a laptop with a screen so flexible that you can screw it up and wash it like a dishcloth. And there’s an attractive piece of desktop furniture that looks like a large paperweight but is in fact a device called a Plume, which can scan hand-written documents into computer text.

It’s here that clients of Japanese computer giant NEC get to experience the company’s latest technology before being taken upstairs to watch a show. Gina Paskins, NEC’s head of marketing and communications, says it’s a perfect schmoozing environment. “We’ve got such a wide variety of clients and the O2 offers us events from Nemo on Ice to heavy rock. We are actually getting clients calling us up and saying ‘Can we come to High School Musical’.”

Since the O2 opened in south-east London 15 months ago, more than 10 million people have passed through the building. The 2.2 million-a-year tickets sold make it the world’s busiest music venue, ahead of New York’s Madison Square Garden. But behind the public face of concerts, exhibitions and film screenings, the former Millennium Dome has also become a hothouse in the art of sponsorship, enabling marketers to break new ground in brand development.

The venue has 11 founding partners, each paying more than a £1m for sponsorship rights, and each taking a wholly different approach. BMW is the brand that has positioned itself at the O2’s most exclusive entrance, placing one of its new BMW X6 models on a plinth alongside the sliding doors where artists and VIP ticket holders arrive, before walking along a corridor decorated with the words signifying the brand’s values, such as “exhilaration”, “performance”, and “precision”.

David Campbell, chief executive of AEG Europe, which runs the O2, says: “BMW wanted exposure to VIP guests. An ad campaign doesn’t give you the same experience as walking through an environment that has something to do with BMW.” He compares the impact of such messages when the consumer is enjoying a night of entertainment with the value of a poster for the BMW X6 at the side of a traffic-congested road. “I would suggest this is more compelling.”

Moving on from the VIP entrance to the VIP room, the visitor enters the space of beverages partner InBev, where an exclusive bar area has been designed as a showcase for the company’s products, particularly the new beer brand Stella Artois 4 per cent. Nestlé, the food services partner, has its Dolce Gusto coffee machine in all of the O2’s 96 corporate suites, ensuring exposure to thousands of board-level executives who would otherwise never get to hear its sales pitch.

Credit Suisse is the sponsor with the most luxurious facilities, having control of the elite Chairman’s Club, where artists (including The Rolling Stones, Barbra Streisand, Take That and Justin Timberlake) come for a post-show drink. “It’s all about exclusivity,” says Campbell of a bar that is equipped like a private members’s club with upscale furnishings and a mock fireplace. “What Credit Suisse wanted was to talk to investment banking clients and high net worth individuals. It is also the whole back stage mystique that makes it work.” The club is modelled on a similar one at the Staples Centre in Los Angeles, the home of the LA Lakers and also owned by AEG.

O2, as the brand that has given its name to the entire venue, also unsurprisingly has its own unique space, the O2 Blueroom, another bar area that is accessible to any of the network’s customers, who must scan their details onto a screen to gain entry. Should they be minded, they can also use their phones to put up photographic images on the screen at the back of the bar and to request music on the jukebox. They can also bring in three friends, even those that aren’t O2 users. The network hopes that these friends might be sufficiently impressed to switch networks.

“What O2 is trying to do here is give a reward to O2 customers and to give others a slice of life that will make them want to become O2 customers,” says Campbell, who says he sits down with the marketing teams of every sponsorship company to try to tailor an offering for their needs. Other sponsorship partners include ADT, NatWest, Pepsi and Visa.

There are 22 acres of space beneath the famous dome and around one third of that remains unused. Campbell wants to adopt a sports-specific area for another partner, Adidas. He is also looking for new sponsors from the travel and energy sectors. He hopes to link those sponsors to the next stage of the O2’s development, a hotel that he wants to be “the most environmentally friendly kind of building”.

Whoever strikes a deal with him will have to find upwards of seven figures, but will find themselves part of a venue that will soon become home to spectaculars such as Cirque Du Soleil and Ben Hur Live. Not bad for what used to be a tent and a lot of hot air.

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