EXCLUSIVE: Two brands, one player – so much at stake. So can Sonny Bill drive a BMW and a Ford?
SONNY Bill Williams appears caught in a brand-association battle between two car distributors, one of which is copping heat for signing up the celebrity sports star.
The core issue is BMW New Zealand having recently announced it has named the rugby and rugby league icon as a brand ambassador.
The deal provisions the player, presently recuperating from injury, with one of the brand’s more elite products, the $161,000 xDrive 50i, the flagship of the X5 sports utility range.
That arrangement has since been criticised by BMW owners - whose concerns have ranged from how Williams dresses and is perceived to act in public to his religious and perceived political choices - and an on-line commentator, a reaction that the brand now admits it was unprepared for.
However, there’s also a fresh spin with a potential clash of brand associations.
Ford New Zealand has also now entered the fray, with suggestion Williams also benefits from getting free use of one of their cars, as part of a support for the All Blacks organised with the New Zealand Rugby Union.
There is some supposition this might present a contractual clash, though Ford has not outright asserted this, with a spokesman saying yesterday he personally did not know the full details of this particular association.
However, Tom Clancy went on to say that, as far as he was aware, Williams also has a Ford New Zealand-provisioned Territory, also a sports utility but at a starting price almost one third that of the Munich machine.
“The All Blacks drive Fords and I believe he is driving a Ford Territory.”
Would the Ford association with the NZRU preclude any involved player having any association with another car brand?
“I believe there would be a conflict … but I don’t know the details of that association.”
BMW New Zealand spokesman Paul Sherley, meanwhile, says the ambassadorship – which is supposed to see Williams promoting BMW lifestyle at sports and social events - is now subject to fresh in-house discussion and, until that has been reconciled, the player has been benched from making social engagement for the company for now.
He said BMW New Zealand had been taken by surprise when owners, within hours of Williams’ association was announced on October 25, took to the brand’s Facebook page to express criticism.
When MotoringNetwork checked yesterday, it appeared those comments – and all reference to the ambassadorship – had been removed.
Well-known blogger Cameron Slater, better known as ‘Whale Oil’, also weighed in.
MotoringNetwork asked Sherley for comment about how BMW felt about the customer complaint and about Slater’s comment, whether it knew if Williams also benefitted from Ford’s association – which Clancy enforces is with the NZRU, and not individual players – and if it was aware that a previous similar role involving a BMW that Williams had enjoyed in 2007 while playing league in Australia had ended with his car being suddenly pulled by its car dealer provider.
Sherley said BMW determined to ask Williams to become its third brand ambassador, alongside Jeff Wilson – who represented NZ in rugby and cricket – and Michelin star chef Josh Emmett, also known as a Master Chef TV show judge, solely on the strength of his sports pedigree.
This spans his time as a rugby player – as an All Black who has played 33 tests including as a member of the Rugby World Cup sides in 2011 and last year who also recently competed at the Rio 2016 Olympics as part of the New Zealand Rugby Sevens team - and, before all that, as high-profile and popular NRL figure.
“Sonny Bill’s appointment, for us, has been made in reference to his sporting performance and his athletic abilities. It’s his personal business what his off-field, um, beliefs and interests are.
“We have appointed him for his sporting prowess.”
He said the marque’s Mount Wellington headquarters had seen, and taken note of, mainly owner feedback about the association.
“Yes, of course. We do, obviously, listen and take note of what our owners and customers are saying and this feedback has certainly been taken into consideration in regard to what we potentially will do with him in the future and the ongoing nature of the relationship.”
So is the ambassadorship being reviewed?
“It will continue but, as I say, we are just looking at the best ways to utilise his services during the time he is an ambassador for us.”
Asked if the disquiet created a challenge for BMW here to use Williams as it had wanted to, Sherley replied: “Not at the moment … I don’t have all the full details on hand insofar as how he will be utilised and what he does with and for us is a discussion point still.
“Obviously the customer and ownership feedback will be taken into consideration when we do come to the events or opportunities where we would potentially utilise ambassadors in the future.”
He acknowledged Emmett and Wilson have been high profile in their own brand association duties, often appearing at dealership launches and being involved in other social activities and speaking engagements.
Asked if the other ambassadors had expressed view about Williams, Sherley said: “I haven’t heard any feedback from them at this point.”
However, the criticisms had come as a surprise. “Everybody has their view and it has certainly taken us by surprise as to the intensity of some of the comments about him.”
In 2007, when playing for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs NRL team, Williams made headlines from losing use of a BMW loan car, apparently provided by a local dealer. This seemed to be as result of publicity about a spree of off-field activities determined unbecoming of his status.
Sherley said he knew something of this, but dismissed it as old history and said BMW NZ had nothing to do with that arrangement. “It was when he was in his early 20s … it was quite some time ago and we don’t really have anything to say about that.”
In respect to any potential link between professional rugby players and Ford, Sherley said that was a question he honestly could not answer.
“All the negotiations have been done through his people at the Auckland Blues … he is obviously off injured at the moment, so he is obviously not going to be picked from an All Blacks’ point of view.
“I don’t know the full details of how that works, except to say that it (the BMW association) was cleared with his people prior to anything being signed.”
When asked to comment about Ford NZ’s provision of cars to professional rugby players, Clancy explained that this arrangement was simple.
“We sponsor the NZ Rugby Union … we don’t have a specific relationship with a specific player, it’s just through the NZRU. We don’t sponsor individual players.”
It was normal that an All Black would receive a Ford New Zealand-provisioned vehicle to enjoy. That largesse did not extend to Super 18 rugby teams. “No, just the All Blacks.”
Asked if Williams had a Ford NZ-provided car at the moment, Clancy replied: “If he is an All Black, he is driving a Territory at the moment.”
He suggested the NZRU would be able to provide clarification.