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At the back-end of 2019 Virgin Money carried out a strategic review of its sponsorship and partnerships activity that resulted in a major focus on live music. Covid-19 may have reduced the impact of its deals, this year, with The O2 and The SSE Hydro arenas but the brand’s determination to support the sector has certainly paid off. The company’s sponsorship of the first bespoke venue built to accommodate audience distancing, the Virgin Money Unity Arena, won worldwide media coverage.

Access talks to Virgin Money sponsorship, partnerships & events senior manager Ali O’Reilly (pictured) about the brand’s commitment to supporting the live music industry and emerging talent.


What led Virgin Money to move heavily into sponsoring live music initiatives and venues this year?

We carried out a strategic review that involved us looking at areas we felt our customers, and potential customers, are passionate about. After a lot of research, music came out very strongly.  As a result, the first thing we did was form partnerships, and sponsorship deals, with The O2 arena in London and The SSE Hydro in Glasgow. We announced the partnerships in February this year and we had plans to bring them to life for customers but lockdown, phase one came, in shortly afterwards.

Another very important part of our involvement with music is supporting young and up-and-coming talent. We are not just focused on sponsorship, we want to take a much more holistic approach, so the Virgin Money Emerging Stars programme was developed. It is a 12 month programme where we identify up-and-coming artists and then they get suites of different things including a bursary, access to mentorship, the opportunity to play live at our stores and venue partners, and we have a partnership with Notion magazine whose team create lots of content around it.

That’s a huge part of the music proposition and one aspect that luckily, we were able continue with throughout this year, even if it is in a slightly different fashion to the plan we’d originally devised. Following the lockdown, the scheme became even more important than we originally thought.

The plan for this year was to get our venue partnerships off the ground and focus on the Emerging Stars programme, and then in light of everything that happened we were looking at other opportunities to support the music industry. That’s when the Unity Arena proposition came on to the desk. It felt like the perfect opportunity because for us music is a long-term commitment and we wanted to play a part in getting live music back up and running.

How successful was the Virgin Money Unity Arena project for the brand and will you support it if it returns next year?

I can’t fully commit at the moment, but we would absolutely love to explore the opportunity. The situation with Covid-19 is changing everyday but depending on how that develops and what the proposition looks like on paper we will certainly consider it.

The partnership was a fantastic opportunity for us for a number of reasons, not least that the arena gained a huge amount of PR and social coverage. That, for us, in our first year of entering music, was amazing. It showed that we’re committed to supporting an industry that has suffered greatly this year.

The brand vision is to focus on giving our customers great opportunities, live experiences, so being able to give our customers live music at a time when it was seen as impossible was a real positive, as was building the relationships and conversations with the industry, artists and management. We were also able to give one of the acts from the Virgin Money Emerging Stars programme, the amazing indie band Mosa Wild, a support slot. We are exploring how we can intertwine our various music sponsorship programmes to support each other.

The UK event industry is severely restricted at present but looking ahead do you plan to extend your involvement in it?

 We’re really trying to focus on our current commitments, our venues, and continuing the support around the Virgin Money Emerging Stars programme. We are in close communication with the SSE Hydro and The O2 arena about their reopening plans and how we can get our sponsorship plans off the ground, hopefully we’re looking at April or May. We are open to considering opportunities but, as with everywhere at the moment, budgets are restricted and so we are primarily focused on what we already have going on at the moment rather than necessarily entering into something new. The venues were closed very soon after we announced our sponsorship, so we never really had an opportunity to get those up and running – that’s going to be huge priority, all being well, next year.

How important is it to extend the brand’s involvement beyond simply the use of the name in an event’s title or advertising?

It’s much more about adding value to the customer experience. Branding is, naturally, very important but we want to make sure that sponsorship is brought to life. We hope that our consumers, when life returns to normal, will be craving experiences more than ever. We saw that with Unity Arena, in terms of kind of ticket sales and the response people had to the shows. We want to partner with events and venues in clever and innovative ways, from an experiential point of view. We had ideas of how we were going to achieve that in our venues but that will have to wait until they reopen.

As a business, we certainly want to look at the music sponsorship proposition and our involvement much more holistically. We think it is hugely important, we want to integrate music across our business, take it closer to our product offerings and help put it into our customers’ hands.