The key components of building a successful sports sponsorship campaign

Brand association within sport is not a new phenomenon. In 1870 tobacco companies started printing baseball cards of specific players to drive awareness of their brands and to increase sales. Similarly in 1936, Adi Dassler, the founder of Adidas, looked to get ahead of the competition (and his brother) by providing free running spikes for Jesse Owens at the Berlin Olympics.

While sport and brand sponsorships have evolved since then, the basic principles stay the same – it should be integrated across the company and be anchored to business strategy.

However, as the market becomes more competitive, brands need to go even further to ensure that their sponsorships not only stand out but are also effective.

Effective sponsorship campaigns understand the role they play in a brand’s wider marketing strategy. And most successful sponsorship brands activate their strategy across one of four approaches: they become synonymous across a sports vertical; they use clear messaging in all their campaigns; they showcase a brand capability; or they promote a concept.


Take Heineken for example. The beer brand excels at using clear messaging to drive association between its product – a beer – and the sporting occasion.

Clearly, there is already a natural affinity between the occasion of watching and enjoying sport, and enjoying a drink or two. But where Heineken has been so successful at standing out, and being known as a drink of choice, is by being creatively smart with a range of activations that have sought to reinforce this link.

Heineken has successfully embedded itself authentically within rugby and football. Campaigns such as #sharethesofa, The Dilemma and Match Your Half ticket are all designed to emotionally engage with real fans through the feeling of celebration, associating the brand in the mind of the consumer with this emotion, to prompt them to choose Heineken when at the bar with friends.

Heineken’s move into F1 this season suggests this tactic is paying off.


MasterCard, like Heineken, doesn’t have an issue with awareness. Where it does fall down is in converting this brand awareness into new customers. That’s why its ‘Priceless’ campaign is so timeless and effective.

The push uses a clear strategy – celebrating priceless sporting moments – and executes this message across all platforms and sports. MasterCard’s Priceless is a big creative idea that works across sport, music and culture, and lends itself to all platforms, while staying true the core brand objectives. Whether it be a TV ad, print or billboard – we all know how the Priceless messaging looks and sounds.

By reinforcing and closely associating the pure essence of sport, and the ‘Priceless’ moments these sporting events create, MasterCard positions itself as an enabler of money-can’t-buy moments. It’s a powerful call to action.


While Heineken and MasterCard are brands that have used their sponsorship strategies to build long-term association, rather than hoping for a short term spike, there is an anomaly approach by Emirates that works incredibly well.

Unlike MasterCard and Heineken, which seek to build emotional connections with consumers, Emirates’ approach is to build awareness through mere exposure.

Many argue that Emirates’ tactic of sponsoring a huge number of sports events across the globe simultaneously is an excessive badging exercise, using a limitless war chest to ensure the Emirates name is seen by millions worldwide on a daily basis.

But while these tactics are not especially refined or strategic, the results cannot be denied. Unprompted awareness of the brand has grown significantly in brand health studies, so that now, consumers claim to have seen Emirates even at events that the brand hasn’t sponsored.

This isn’t a route for all brands - but Emirates’ extensive sponsorship portfolio, and always-on approach, means it is being recalled as much as Coca Cola and Nike.

Clearly, successful sponsorships can come in many forms, and is achieved by a whole array of approaches. The lesson though is clear: understand what success looks like for your brand, plot the most appropriate approach to catching the eye of your consumer, in the most authentic way possible and stick with it – rewards from sponsorship come over time and are rarely a quick fix.

Ben Treadaway is vice president of brand and properties at Wasserman

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