Why a sports tie-up is worth its weight in gold
Postural support company Leckey Design's sponsorship deal with champion Paralympian Michael McKillop hailed a runaway success
Over the last few years the boom in marketing spend on sport has been dented by the downturn in the global economy.
But for many companies the benefits of being attached to particular sports or athletes pays dividends.
Dunmurry-based Leckey Design, which makes postural care solutions for babies, adults and children, is one such firm.
It has teamed up with a talented paralympic athlete from Northern Ireland who is now helping the company to spread its ethos of positivity and achieving potential, as well as generating lucrative exposure for the brand.
Marketing manager Gillian Parker explains: "We had held a few discussions in the company about the London Paralympics in 2012 and about the possibility of linking up with an athlete to promote our products and our message.
"Not long after, I caught an item on TV about Michael McKillop's successes and I just knew he'd be perfect."
Michael McKillop is a 21-year- old track athlete from Newtownabbey. McKillop - who has a mild form of cerebral palsy - is a three times gold medal winner.
He triumphed at the 800m events in the 2006 IPC (International Paralympics Committee) Athletics World Championships in the Netherlands, the Beijing Paralympics in 2008 and the IPC Athletics World Championships in New Zealand this year. He also managed to set two new world records in New Zealand, in both the 800m and 1500m events.
Gillian contacted Michael's father Paddy, who is also his trainer, and the family agreed to meet the company to discuss a partnership.
Early in the discussions, it became clear that Gillian's instincts had been spot on.
She said: "They told us all about Michael's story. He was diagnosed with cerebral palsy at the age of three and didn't begin to walk or talk until that age.
"It is a relatively mild form of the condition but affects him down one side, so his right side would be stiffer."
His parents described how they chose mainstream education for their son and assisted him at home to aid his weaker side.
They would give him sports balls and racquets to encourage the young Michael to use both his hands and to improve his sight and coordination.
Gillian continues: "They tried different sports to help him overcome his condition and running appealed to him.
"Now he's winning gold medals, setting world records and competing in able-bodied as well as Paralympic races.
"It became clear we could work well together. We believe our products are about giving a child the best start in life - just like Michael's parents did with him."
In May of this year, Leckey and Michael signed an 18-month sponsorship contract, which will last up to and slightly beyond the 2012 Paralympic Games in London, which take place between August 29 and September 9 next year.
McKillop is competing as part of the Irish Paralympic team and whilst taking part in races, will be wearing official team-wear. However, during television interviews after events, he will appear in Leckey-branded clothing - potentially bringing the company's name and logo to millions of viewers and spectators.
Leckey decided that direct endorsement by Michael would be inappropriate, given the nature of the products. A team of clinical specialists are involved in development and products can be prescribed by therapists, so it was thought such advertising would be offputting.
Gillian said Michael had congratulated James Leckey on the aids and systems he had created.
"His family said that, had these things been available to them when Michael was a baby, they may well have used them."
Michael's growing status as a sports star has already been helping the brand to attract attention.
His presence at the company's stand at the recent Kidz South show in Reading - an exhibition for disabled children organised by UK charity Disabled Living - drew in the crowds, as families and children were given the chance to meet a Paralympic gold medallist.
"We had a queue of people waiting to meet him," said Gillian.
"We had little plastic gold medals with Leckey's name on it which we gave out to the kids, so there was a nice bit of association between that great experience and our company.
"He was fabulous with the kids; asking them about their disability and telling them about his. It showed them you don't need to be held back and a lot of the staff on the stand were quite emotional at times."
"It was also quite useful for our clinical staff to be able to ask him candid questions, that they wouldn't be able to ask a child - like what it was like for him to go to a mainstream school when he had a disability."
The fun and friendly atmosphere also made it easier to get people and parents interested in Leckey's various aids and talking to the product team.
As well as plans to bring Michael to future Disabled Living exhibitions, the company is now focused on building upon their growing brand awareness.
One venture will see them providing schools with academic year planners, complete with Leckey logo and product pictures, as well as photos of Michael and highlighted key dates in his sporting calendar, including the opening and closing ceremonies of the Paralympics.
The firm's association with the prestigious sporting competition is further strengthened by Michael's 'journey to the Games' - chronicled through his blog, hosted on Leckey's website.
At the time of writing, his latest monthly entry was posted on August 16, detailing his experience at a training camp in Portugal organised through Paralympics Ireland.
With the partnership seemingly going from strength to strength, the company hopes it is a relationship they can maintain into the future. Gillian said: "He's a local boy whose achievements are absolutely amazing, so if he goes on to win more medals next year, that'll be fantastic for him and great for us if we carry on working together.
"There's nothing in writing as yet, but we would love to continue the sponsorship."
To read Michael's blog and get more information about Leckey products, visit www.leckey.com
Honoured to have company's support
Michael said he was "pleased and honoured" to accept Leckey's offer of a sponsorship deal when they approached him earlier this year.
He said: "It was great to have a big company seek me out like that. I would always have been open to the idea, but I wouldn't be the kind of person to go looking for it myself."
Since signing the contract in May, Michael says Leckey have provided a massive boost to his sporting career.
"They've been so supportive and really helped to get my name out there.
"In turn, I've promoted their company and products - it's a two-way deal."
Michael says it was the nature of the company that was the clincher.
"It wasn't just some ordinary company looking for exposure, they were interested in disability and produce chairs and supports for people with severe cerebral palsy.
"As I have cerebral palsy too, I have become a huge supporter of the work Leckey does.
"I didn't walk until I was three-years-old and their frames are helping kids with this condition to walk."
Michael hopes that with his name as a gold medal winner and someone with a disability enjoying a successful life and career, he can help Leckey gain bigger and better exposure.
"The money from the company is not a huge amount and the relationship is more than just about money.
"But the sponsorship helps to pay for things like warm weather training and physiotherapy.
"It's all about supporting me in my bid to gain medals at 2012."
Michael hopes that triumph at the London 2012 Paralympics could propel him on to qualify for the Games in Rio in 2016.
"If I've proven myself as the right investment and Leckey offer me an extended contract after 2012, I would jump at the chance. I would love the chance to carry on working with them."