How smart sponsorship has brought the name of a once obscure foreign airline into everyday vocabulary

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The Independent Online

Though it has neither the Thirties grandeur of Broadcasting House nor the cache of a top table at the Ivy, a suburban roundabout between Staines and Hayes on the outskirts of London is undoubtedly one of the most valuable media locations in Britain.

It's not any roundabout. It's the gateway into Heathrow airport, a gyratory system used by 25 million people a year, many of them, in every sense, highfliers.

Once called Concorde Roundabout, it will soon be known to you and I as Emirates Roundabout. As in Emirates Stadium. Named after the people who sponsor the shirts of Arsenal, the referees at rugby and the umpires at cricket.

And seasoned travellers may know that Emirates also pays to have its name adorn the clothing of Paris St Germain football team in France, Hamburger SV in Germany and the Collingwood Australian Rules side. It attaches itself to the richest horse race on earth and is planning to venture into sponsorship of arts events.

The Emirates name, and the airline's logo (the sort of thing Channel 4 might use if it were doing an Arab Week), were almost unknown until a few years ago. But the company's growing presence in the public consciousness, a process that gathered pace after Emirates started appearing on Chelsea shirts in 2000, demonstrates the role that sponsorship plays in a modern marketing strategy.

"When people get into a taxi in London and ask for 'The Emirates' when they are going to the Arsenal football stadium it shows that you are getting into the awareness of the general public," explains Mike Simon, the company's senior vice president, corporate communications.

Emirates spends around £150m a year on marketing, including advertising and public relations. In the past few years, sponsorship has taken an increasingly large slice of the pie. "Initially, we were 90 per cent advertising and 10 per cent sponsorship and now we've moved to 50-50," says Simon. "The significant date was 1999 when we became involved as one of the sponsors of the Cricket World Cup."

Emirates realised it had to do something more lasting to really get into everyday conversation. So in 2004 it clinched an arrangement with Arsenal to sponsor the club's new stadium in north London. The £100m deal, spread over 15 years, was the biggest in English football history. "We suddenly realised that if we were going to promote the name of Emirates in the UK and worldwide we had to have some long term sponsorship agreements which would give us television as well as press exposure."

The company calls in outside agencies to monitor the appearances of its branding in the media. "We measure every event and see how much it was worth, how much exposure we got on television and in the press. We like to have a six or seven to one return [for the investment]. We have agencies who watch television and note down how often they see the Emirates logo and things like that. It must be the complete logo and you must be able to read it before it leaves the screen. They then compare with how much it would have cost if you had bought that space on television or in the newspapers. It's not too scientific, it's a finger in the air type of measurement. But when you sponsor quite a lot as we do, you get more than a gut feeling of whether the sponsorship is doing well or not."

The airline backs Australia's Melbourne Cup thoroughbred race (now called the Emirates Melbourne Cup) and the richest horse race on the planet, the Dubai World Cup, where the badging is more discreet (perhaps because the airline was set up by the Dubai government). Next will be sponsorship of the arts. "We've got a bit of culture as well," says Simon. "We are the sponsor of the Emirates Airline International Festival of Literature which will take place in Dubai in 2009 and we've already got about 60 well-known authors signed up to talk about their books."

The strategy would appear to be effective given that Emirates has grown from a once-a-day service to the fourth largest long haul airline operating in and out of the UK (Behind British Airways, Virgin and American Airlines).

But Simon denies that sponsorship can simply replace other forms of advertising. "We don't consider sponsorship more effective but we consider it very effective when it's part of an integrated marketing mix which includes above and below the line advertising, television, press and direct mail. It only works if it's everything working together. Sponsorship is an umbrella type advertising which plugs the name, but you've got to have tactical and strategic advertising so that people know where the hell Emirates is flying to, when they fly, how they fly and what they offer when they fly."

Within that mix, the Emirates roundabout is "very important". Ahead of this week's unveiling of a model of the airline's A380 Airbus, Julie France, managing director of JC Decaux Airport, owners of the roundabout, says that "it's a landmark site and in terms of high profile I don't think it gets much better".

"It was known as the Concorde roundabout and hopefully it will now be known as The Emirates Roundabout. It makes a statement of our presence in the UK," says Simon. "We came to the UK in 1987 and this is underlining the fact that we are now a big player in the UK aviation world."