Sponsorship needs creativity, not just a cheque

Hamish Pringle is strategic advisor at 23red, former IPA director general, and has had five successful business books published. With an agency career spanning 26 years, he’s worked on more than 50 brands.

One of O2’s first moves as a brand, when it emerged from the chrysalis of BT Cellnet, was to sponsor England Rugby. This was a bold decision and, with its IPA Effectiveness Award-winning ‘bubbles’ campaign, it helped establish O2 remarkably quickly, and soon achieved brand leadership over Orange.

This sponsorship has, so far, served O2 well. The ‘Make Them Giants’ England rugby campaign resonated with the public and perfectly captured the nation's excitement. However, results at the weekend were clearly not what O2 wanted or expected, but I would imagine the brand is in it for the long term. It will be interesting to see how O2 responds to the unceremonial dumping of England out of the tournament.

Too often the decision to sponsor is made on a hobbyist or fashion whim. Due to a lack of an underlying strategy, many brands who sign up to a major new sponsorship struggle to activate it successfully, and fail to prove the positive effect on the business.

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Sponsorship properties are big business and sports sponsorships are the biggest. Not only that, these sponsorships come with major time, cost, and resource commitments attached. The received wisdom is that “the same again plus 50 per cent” needs to be spent on promoting the sponsorship through other channels, as on the sponsorship itself.

Increasingly, boardrooms demand a tangible commercial return. Yet marketers are not arguing effectively for sufficient budget to either support the sponsorship properly, or measure the outcome. Often they fail to make the most of their investment, leaving the door open for other, non-sponsoring brands to hijack the event with guerrilla tactics. Paddy Power is a master at this.

Brands need to approach a sponsorship not only with chequebook in hand, but also with creativity in mind.

Take Rugby World Cup 2015 and the problem of clutter. There are 19 sponsors in total:

The ‘Worldwide Partners’ are Heineken, Land Rover, Societé General, DHL, Emirates, and Mastercard.

The ‘Official Sponsors’ are Coca-Cola, Canon, Toshiba, and Fujitsu.

The ‘Tournament Suppliers’ are Gilbert, Canterbury, Clifford Chance, EY, Dove Men Care, and Tissot.

The ‘Tournament Providers’ are Duracel, William Grant & Sons, and Heathrow.

But then there are also 26 sponsors of England Rugby, only three of whom are in common with Rugby World Cup – Gilbert, Canterbury, and Dove Men Care. That’s quite a scrum to fight through, and creativity can be the ball carrier.

Problem number two is that we still see far too many sponsorships which defy the logic of the necessary fit with the brand and its target audience. While the ‘reason to be’ for supplier brands to sponsor a property is clear (and the fans recognise this) it’s often less obvious with other sponsors.

For B2B sponsors, the Rugby World Cup 2015 tournament provides a global corporate entertainment vehicle and, for the B2C brands like Heineken, there’s the ‘fit’ with the lager-drinking rugby fan. The question should always be: is the link enough to be credible?

Those less connected brands may underestimate the degree of consumer cynicism which can greet the announcement of a new sponsorship deal. For example, people may think the rights owner is just tying up with the brand for the money without any real ‘reason why’. This cynicism can be made worse if the deal lacks exclusivity and the brand is just one amongst a number of sponsors, as in the case of the Rugby World Cup.

Not all sports fans would see an obvious link between batteries and rugby, for instance. However Duracell has said it wants to demonstrate the “power and longevity” of its brand. To activate its sponsorship, Duracell, powerful media partner the Daily Mail, and celebrity signing Sam Warburton are plugging #PowerCheck hard. Hopefully fans will get the connection.

To make the most of the investment it’s important that there is a genuine link between the brand, the sponsorship property, and the target audience. If there isn’t an inherent one, the key way to create it is by the brand taking an active role in contributing to the fans’ enjoyment of the sponsorship property.

In this way, clients can turn their sponsorship into a relationship which moves beyond a mere association. It may be counter-intuitive, but if a brand is to ‘borrow interest’ from a sponsorship property, then it needs to reciprocate and add value to the experience. The best way to do this is for the brand to create a ‘platform’ idea or campaign. This platform is in effect co-owned by the brand, the rights owner, and the target audience. It creates a sense of intimacy, which gives the brand a strong reason to be involved, counteracts any cynicism about the deal, and enhances the fan’s enjoyment.

For a platform idea to work, a brand needs a ‘holy trinity’ that unites the sponsorship property, the product, and audiences’ passion points. And it is only through this pinpoint focus that true value can be driven through basic rights packages, and the wider brand activation.

Through engagement with the creative platform, the audience is reinforced as a fan not only of the sponsorship property, but also of the sponsoring brand. By developing such a campaign, clients are able to make sponsorship greater than the sum of its parts. The opportunity is huge for brands that are currently just buying badging rights, rather than claiming their share of fan love. Cheques and creativity are the real money-making combination.

Hamish Pringle is strategic advisor to 23 Red. He tweets @hamishpringle

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