Combine an international insurance and human resources giant with the best-known team name in international soccer and what do you get?
For Chicago-based Aon Corp. it means tens of thousands of employees worldwide who are now associated with Manchester United, which has won a record 19 championships in the highest division of English soccer and was tabbed by Forbes magazine as the world's richest soccer club worth $1.8 billion. For Aon management, the Manchester United connection provides an impetus for building teamwork and camaraderie throughout the company and a chance to become more involved with new communities of clients.
Aon, which also specializes in risk management solutions, is in the midst of a four-year sponsorship deal with ManU, as the team is known, that has been estimated to be worth $130 million. Aon management considers this money well-spent, particularly with the word "Aon" spread across the front of the Manchester United jersey—a jersey that is better known around the world than the pinstripes of the New York Yankees or the green of the Boston Celtics.
"It was important that we did something big and impactful," said Philip Clement, Aon's global chief marketing and communications officer. The ManU sponsorship "certainly serves as a model for how to engage with employees."
Indeed, one of those employees observed when the sponsorship agreement was announced in 2010: "It's the first time in 25 years of working in insurance that I feel cool."
After Lincolnshire, Illinois-based HR consulting firm Hewitt Associates was acquired by Aon a year ago, Clement said the new employees often asked, "When do we get our jersey?"
On Oct. 23, another dimension was added to the partnership when Aon unveiled Pass It On, (an employment and client engagement initiative during Manchester United's match against cross-town rivals Manchester City.
The company describes Pass It On as "a multifaceted, global program that combines elements of employee engagement, community service and client partnerships to demonstrate to the world how Aon's 60,000 colleagues in over 120 countries focus every day on empowering results for their clients and communities."
The company says three regional teams from Aon—Asia Pacific, EMEA (Europe, Middle East, Africa) and the Americas—will compete for points as they pass Manchester United soccer balls along three transcontinental routes covering approximately 112,000 miles, nearly 4½ times the Earth's circumference. The balls will stop at Aon offices and other points of interest around the world.
As part of the interactive, online competition, employees in each Aon office will earn points by submitting photos, videos and stories covering client success stories, colleague profiles and examples of local community service initiatives.
"Pass It On will enable our colleagues to literally pass on what it means to be Aon—through our knowledge, service, values and client expertise. It is another step toward uniting our firm," said Greg Case, Aon's president and chief executive officer, in a news release.
Nearly every company talks about working like a team, but the success of Manchester United—the team also has won 11 English Football Association Cups and three European Champions League titles—helps Aon bring those lessons home.
The company was built on a series of mergers and acquisitions throughout the 1980s. In 1987 the merged companies was renamed Aon, which means "oneness" in Gaelic. The acquisitions continued throughout the 1990s and culminated with last year's deal to acquire HR consulting giant Hewitt Associates.
"What it means to be a team is a really important conversation for us to have," Clement said. "With Manchester United, it's easy to get [employees] talking in that context. It's giving employees something they could never have any other way.
"It gets us focused on a clear set of messages about being a united team and performing on a high level."
When Manchester United visited Chicago in July for an exhibition match against the Chicago Fire of Major League Soccer, Clement said it was "great to walk down Michigan Avenue and see the street filled with Aon jerseys."
ManU also played exhibitions in Massachusetts, New Jersey, Washington, D.C., and Seattle. Aon employees in Seattle were treated to a visit from former ManU players Bryan Robson and Andrew Cole and got a look at the English Premier League trophy.
"That gets their attention," Clement said. "There is an important object and important people in the room."
Aon, which has nearly 60,000 employees in 500 offices in more than 120 countries, says it has found nearly universal acceptance of the ManU sponsorship, other than in the United Kingdom where soccer loyalties run deep and span generations.
In soccer-mad Spain, however, Aon's office in Barcelona changed the name of its conference room to the Manchester United Room. Considering the success of the Barcelona's own club, the current European Champions League winners featuring a gallery of international stars including 2011 European Player of the Year Lionel Messi, Clement compares this to "asking the bull to root for the matador."
Even in India, not exactly a soccer stronghold, Clement says the ManU connection has helped raise Aon's profile. A job opening at Aon's Indian operations used to attract about 80 applicants. During the past year, Clement says, that number has soared to between 300 and 400.
But beyond the feel-good nature of the ManU partnership, tangible economic benefits to the partnership are a little harder to discern.
Corporate branding specialist Rob Frankel says the big question is finding the proper metrics to measure such deals.
"There's not really a metric to know if it's working," Frankel said. "Even for a company as big as Aon, with deep pockets, many don't get a handle" on the sponsorship.
"People often confuse branding with identity and awareness. A lot of people recognize the [Aon] logo but don't know what they should do with it. Awareness is one thing. Brand strategy is another."
Aon has not released any revenue figures relating to the ManU deal but David Prosperi, Aon's vice president of global public relations, said the sponsorship has "provided substantial value to Aon for a business perspective" and that "if it helps us elevate our global brand and helps us bring in new clients and retain an even higher percentage of existing clients, we will be happy."
Prosperi said Aon experienced a huge spike in traffic on its website once the sponsorship was announced.
"Traffic to aon.com increased by approximately 150 to 175 percent when we launched the sponsorships in July 2010," and is trending about 30 to 35 percent higher on a weekly basis compared with pre-sponsorship levels, Prosperi said. "We track website hits by geography and we can see significant spikes in interest from certain countries on match days."
Rich Honack, a marketing professor at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management, says the ManU connection "certainly gives Aon global recognition" with a sport as popular as soccer but added that "in today's world you don't look at long-term partnerships any more."
Honack said that if Aon believes its name recognition "has run its course" it simply can move on. He added, however, "if their target was the fans of Manchester United and then [Aon] leaves the sponsorship, they could lose those fans as potential clients."
Richard Rothschild is a freelance writer based in Oak Park, Illinois. To comment, email email@example.com.