Etihad Airways could not have asked for a better return on its investment when its first season as shirt-sponsors of Chelsea Football Club reaches an exciting climax next week – they are flying the potential Champions League winners to Moscow to play Manchester United.
As the London side's official airline, Etihad will transport the likes of Chelsea players Frank Lampard and John Terry for a first class face-off on May 21, and in doing so will be cementing its position as a global premium brand.
Although Etihad could not have predicted such a successful end to the season, the cup final will cap an aggressive year-long sponsorship campaign. In the past 12 months, the UAE's national airline has signed deals to sponsor Formula One's Spyker and Ferrari F1 Racing teams, UK rugby union side Harlequins and the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.
"Having Chelsea flying Etihad to the final is a great endorsement of our brand and by being the airline of the team we will remain the airline of the Chelsea community and supporters," said Peter Baumgartner, Executive Vice President for Marketing and Product at Etihad.
"The team loves our product so it's been very easy to get them on board. I believe very strongly in Chelsea's capability to be flying back as winners," he said.
In an increasingly cut-throat global sponsorship market, firms looking for stellar returns on their investment are having to engineer sharper business strategies to keep the momentum in their brand.
Since it signed the contract with Chelsea in September, Etihad has organised a number of football academies on UAE soil, as well as an Abu Dhabi day at Stamford Bridge.
Events such as these are all intended to keep the Etihad, as well as the Abu Dhabi Inc, brand alive.
Baumgartner said: "It's not just about signing a contract and expecting miracles, it's about immediately getting engaged with the marketing teams of the companies you sponsor, be it Chelsea or Harlequins.
"At our Chelsea soccer schools in Abu Dhabi we used players like Graham Le Saux and Roberto Di Matteo as brand ambassadors because they represent the type of value that is close to our brand."
He adds: "You have to have a long-term strategy, and then you select your partners from your shortlist because they help you roll out this strategy.
"You can't just sponsor anyone just because you have the budget to do it."
Baumgartner was the architect behind the Chelsea, Harlequins and most recently Ferrari deal. Laura Oakes, Head of Sponsorship at Harlequins, said picking a company that shares similar long-term values was the key to boosting the life-span of a brand.
"We're on the look out for partners that will mirror our own values because that's when the sponsorship becomes really strong. We position Harlequins as a premium, quality product, so that's the type of sponsor we want to get on board, for example Etihad."
Oakes said the rugby club generated an activation plan with its sponsors to focus objectives for the coming season.
Harlequins meets with Etihad once a month, but Oakes said with other sponsors it could be once a quarter.
"Every time we sit down with them we discuss what worked and what didn't work so well, and what we can improve on," she said.
An activation plan can include events like the recent Abu Dhabi day that was held at the Harlequins ground – an Arabic-themed day with traditional food and an Arabian falcon display – or having the team featured on Etihad's in-flight entertainment system.
Damian Willoughby, Head of Platinum Sponsors at Chelsea Football Club, which aims to be the biggest club in world football by 2014, said the need for an airtight activation plan was critical to any business strategy. "We sit down with sponsors before the deal is signed and try to establish clearly their brand values and aspirations," he said.
"Like any good business practice, having documented business plans, so all parties know what the objectives are, is just sound business sense. We're building a football club to win trophies on the pitch but sustainable as a football club in the long-term.
Willoughby said Chelsea soccer camps and Abu Dhabi day at Stamford Bridge were planned high points in the relationship with Etihad. Adidas and Samsung are Chelsea's premium sponsors, with Etihad, Heineken, Thomas Cook and online ticket market place Viagogo as platinum partners.
Sponsors typically split their budget equally between spend on sponsorship rights and the activation budget.
Getting to the Champions League final is something that can only be hoped for rather than planned for at an activation plan meeting at the beginning of a the season.
"To win trophies gives us a really solid foundation to build the brand on a global scale. We need to win the Champions League to be considered a truly global player. And getting to the final delivers on a promise that we made to our brand and partners that we are going to be a major club and get to the final. It also puts us in a different bracket to get involved with other brands who want to get involved with the club," said Willoughby.
And as unplanned as a trip to Moscow on May 21 may be, it will give Chelsea players and Etihad executives plenty to talk about on the flight over.
In the past 12 months, the UAE's national airline has aggressively made its mark in the world of Forumla One racing, signing on as sponsors of the Spyker and Ferrari F1 Racing teams and as the title sponsor of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, to take place next year.
It also signed a deal last July with UK rugby side Harlequins, while two months later signing a deal with Chelsea FC to become a club sponsor and their official airline.
In March, two days after St Patrick's Day, it announced a deal to become main sponsor of the All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship.
When Spyker were taken over by Vijay Mallya's Force India, Etihad took the opportunity to make a switch too – ending up with the current world champions Ferrari.