To say that sponsorship has played a major role in the rebirth of Allied Irish Bank would be an understatement.

Facing massive public outcry for its role in the 2007-2008 financial crisis—a period that resulted in a 70 percent decline in home values in Ireland, triple-digit unemployment, the greatest decline in output for a western country since World War II and a subsequent corporate bailout—the bank posted the lowest score (six percent) ever recorded by a company on the Edelman Trust Barometer.

At the same time, 99 percent of media sentiment and 90 percent of social media sentiment was negative. Even worse, AIB employees went so far as denying they worked for the company.

By 2012, the total charge of keeping AIB afloat totaled nearly $21 billion euros—a number that equaled roughly 39 percent of Ireland’s total tax revenue in the following year.

In their presentation “Tapping A Longtime Partnership To Restore A Brand’s Reputation” at IEG 2017, Mark Brennan, AIB head of digital marketing & innovation, and Brian Keating, group propositions & brands director, explained how the banking giant leveraged its sponsorship of the Gaelic Athletic Association to overcome what was arguably the biggest marketing challenge in the history of Ireland.

Below are edited excerpts from the presentation

Where do you start?
“At the time, we couldn’t advertise our core products like mortgages and personal credit lending because there was so much negative sentiment. As part of the terms of the bailout we were fully state owned and our budget was slashed. It remains capped today.

We cut all of our sponsorships, bar one: the AIB GAA Club Championships. We had the partnership for 22 years, but we had underinvested in it for quite a while. We primarily used it at the local level to drive engagement and relationships.

The Gaelic Games are the pinnacle of Irish sport. They’re played in front of millions of people and a big part of the fabric of Irish society. But we didn’t sponsor that. We sponsored the All-Ireland Club Championship. The Club Championship is a competition that is open to players in approximately 2,000 clubs. It’s seen by the industry and the media as a lower-tier program

In essence, the sponsorship was seen as the runt of the litter in GAA sports. The Club Championships was the 22nd most popular sponsorship in Ireland. When you’re No. 22 in a small country, it’s not a good thing. We had an extremely small budget to change it. And we were still public enemy number one from a brand perspective.

We discovered a jewel
But rather than look away, we looked a little closer.

The easiest thing to do would have been to walk away from the sponsorship. But we decided to go in the opposite direction and look at what we had. We got our team, our agency partners and some of the best players in the GAA into a room to reexamine the property. What we found is that we have this amazing jewel. It was a bottom-tier sponsorship, but the reality was, it was the game that players wanted to win the most out of all the GAA competitions.

The reason why the Club Championship is unique is that you play with people you were born with. There is no draft or transfers, and you can’t change clubs. You play for your village or town. Your teammates are schoolmates, neighbors and family. There is huge pride involved.

The Club Championship is arguably the hardest competition to win in sport, and we think it may be the hardest competition to win in the world. Whether hurling or football, your team has to win 12 consecutive games over 12 months, and the vast majority are played during our worst winter weather. And all players compete while working full time. They’re all amateurs.

The idea: how tough?
The property we had wasn’t the biggest, sexiest or highest-profile. But we did have the fact that players wanted to win it more than any other competition and bring a sense of glory to their village or town. Our idea was to start a debate with customers: Just how hard is it to win this competition?

That led us to ‘The Toughest’ creative platform. If you won this, you represented the best of the best. We used a hashtag to signify this as a conversation. It’s not about the bank. It’s about getting everyone involved.

Colm Cooper is the Tom Brady of the GAA. The amazing thing is, he doesn’t get paid. He is the most recognized sportsman in Ireland. He is the embodiment of the toughest. He had won everything but the All-Ireland Club Championship.  

We recorded his unscripted words for a TV ad that explained the toughest and started the debate around the competition.

In addition to showcasing the top players, we wanted to champion the everyday passion of the local club teams. To do that, we needed to create a lot of content and footage. We put cameras in dressing rooms to capture content, some of which became TV ads. It captured the competition of the sport and the desire of players to win our competition.

All of a sudden, as a brand we were alive again. No one was screaming at us in the social space. We had an opportunity, and it was crucial that we kept it going. We had a small fire going, and we needed to fuel it.

Balancing the everyday with the spectacular
We developed a content strategy. It was very simple, which is why it has been so impactful. Simply, we wanted to balance the everyday with the spectacular.

It’s hard to believe now, but three years ago most of the media did not carry scores from the games. So we decided to create bespoke digital posters that brought to life game scores and elevated the players. The clubs loved it.

We also created a lot of live in-game content. But rather than focus on facts and stats, we focus on the personalities of the players. That’s a space we could play in as a brand.

Our budgets are constrained, so we’re constantly looking for new, better, easier and cheaper ways of doing things. We did everything from Twitter question and answer sessions with players to native videos on Facebook and 360-degree virtual reality experiences. We became a broadcaster. These games are small and community based, and there may only be a few thousand people. The last game we broadcast on our web site was viewed by people from 175 countries.

So we really started to act like a broadcaster.

What would Don do?
After twelve months we started to get some momentum. We were back in the conversation in a positive way. We could start talking to our customers again about our core financial products like mortgage and personal and business loans.

That’s where we could have stayed. We were back in the conversation, we had momentum, and we were advertising our products again. But the best teams don’t rest on their laurels. How do we improve and do better?

We distilled that energy into a creative brief for our agency partners. The question: What would Don King do? He would think big and think globally. He would stop worrying if this is the toughest sport in Ireland. He would say this is the toughest sport in the world. That was the key thing for us.

We wondered what would happen if we swapped GAA athletes with other countries to see how they fared in other professional sports. And we brought professional athletes from other countries to Ireland to see how far they would get in amateur sports.

We created “The Toughest Trade,” a series of five one-hour documentaries. We sent our top GAA players to some of the top clubs in the toughest sports in the world. We sent players to clubs in the NFL, NHL, MLB, the Premier League and the Top 14 Rugby League in France. We even sent a hurler to Australia to compete in the T20 Big Bash League in cricket.

The reaction was off the chart. The first year we managed to get the second-biggest broadcaster in Ireland to show it in prime time. In year two and three our national broadcaster demanded the shows, which was brilliant for us.

Consumers love seeing their heroes outside their comfort zone trying something different.

We became the number one GAA sponsor in a short period of time. It was a very cluttered area, so we were quite proud of that. But even more important than that we became the number one sports sponsor in Ireland. We were at number 22. That is notable because we had two huge events in Europe in 2016: the European Soccer Championships, which Ireland qualified for, and the Olympic Games.

Despite sponsors like Heineken, Carlsberg and Coca-Cola, all of which do brilliant jobs, our research told us that AIB officially won the summer of sport.

We also went from 6 percent to 57 percent from a trust perspective. A massive pivot.

From an engagement perspective, prior to 2013 on all of our video content, we had 30,000 views. Funny enough, bankers in suits talking to cameras isn’t all that interesting. With GAA alone we had 19.5 million video views. In a country of four million people, that’s a sizeable increase.

The kicker for us is that we went from a place in 2013 when people didn’t want to talk to us. And when they did, they were shouting obscenities. Now, 62 percent of people talk to their friends about AIB GAA. This truly for us was a Trojan horse that allowed us to get back into the conversation and win back the hearts and minds of the Irish people.