COVID had a big impact on the sponsorship industry. The negative impacts were readily apparent, but there were also a lot of positive impacts, with sponsors becoming simultaneously more strategic, more efficient, and more resourceful. But even as sponsor sophistication has grown, many sponsors are still hanging onto some old habits.
In this article, I list a few of sponsors’ worst habits – the ones that undermine even the best sponsorship strategies – and outline how to shift that approach.
On one of my last pre-COVID speaking trips, I attended a high-end, high-powered sponsorship conference where speaker after speaker called sponsorship a “communication platform”. You might be thinking this is just semantics, but in context, it was clear that their primary interest in sponsorship was outbound communications aimed primarily at the properties’ target markets.
First off, there are much easier ways to do one-way communications than sponsorship. Ad campaigns are purpose-built for one-way communications, and don’t require planning and implementing a whole leverage plan, or managing a rightsholder relationship. Digital campaigns can even get those messages to all the same fans you can reach through a sponsorship.
Second, if all you’re doing with sponsorship is using it as a one-way communications platform – or worse, for sheer brand exposure – you’re underutilising sponsorship to such an extent that you might as well not do it at all. Sponsorship is the most powerful tool in your marketing toolbox. It’s driven by meaning and passion; it’s flexible, powerful, and durable. If you understand how it works, you know that outbound messaging is just one tiny part of its potential for your brand.
For more on how sponsorship works, and what drives results, I suggest you read my white paper, “Disruptive Sponsorship”.
“Pivot to video.” We’ve all heard it, and many sponsors are taking this to heart.
For some, this means one beautifully produced video, with a soaring narrative, and often featuring some sporting superstar. They play the heartstrings like a fiddle, and sometimes go viral, which is great. But for far too many sponsors, that’s it for leverage. It’s one and done.
When I question this approach, the answer is almost always the same, “Have you seen the video? It’s glorious! Cost a bloody fortune, too. What more do you want from us??”
But here’s the thing… it isn’t what I want, it’s what the fans want, your customers, your staff, and intermediary markets. They love what you sponsor, and your job, as a sponsor, is to understand, respect, and add meaningful value to their fan experience. Does one fancy video do that? Does that make their fan experience better? Does it have anything to do with the fans at all? Because if you asked the fans, I’m betting they’d say “no”.
I’m not saying you can’t have a beautiful video, but be clear about the scope of its impact. If it’s really just a long-form ad, fine, but you still need to do a complement of leverage activities that are meaningful to the fans, that give them a win, because if they don’t win, you don’t either.
For more on adding value to the fan experience, read my white paper, “Last Generation Sponsorship Redux”.
I have nothing against advertising, whether it be in main media, online, or elsewhere. It can absolutely be both creative and effective.
But what it isn’t is sponsorship. They’re different things that work completely differently from each other. Using advertising as the benchmark by which sponsorship opportunities are evaluated, and results are measured, is like measuring the quality of a wine with a protractor.
And what exactly are these advertising benchmarks supposed to mean in a sponsorship context, anyway?
Assigning some media equivalency figure to logo exposure isn’t an equivalency at all. An ad is a cohesive message, created to evoke a response. A logo is just a logo, probably in a sea of other logos. And even if they were somehow equal (they’re not), that media equivalency figure would only tell you how widely the logo was seen, not whether it had any impact on brand alignment, perceptions, or behaviours.
Asking prompted and unprompted sponsorship awareness questions – which function like ad recall questions – doesn’t measure brand impact at all. And if you’re looking at a property simply as a captive audience – another channel – for your outbound communications, you’ve missed the point entirely, as noted above.
Sponsorship is complex and multi-faceted. It’s absolutely measurable, but those measures need to be made against multiple existing benchmarks – brand tracking, sentiment, net promoter scores, sales, staff morale, and any of a hundred other legitimate measures – and carried out by the stakeholders that own those measures. Same goes for evaluating the leverageable potential of a sponsorship.
For more on measurement, read “Sponsorship Measurement: How to Measure What’s Important“.
“Once we’ve approved the sponsorship, we leave it to the sponsorship team to make it happen.”
I’ve heard this from countless brand managers and CMOs, and they’re setting themselves up for failure.
This graphic shows how the best sponsors in the world centralise sponsorship in their marketing mix, using it as a catalyst to make their other marketing activities more powerful. By starting your leverage planning in this way, you’re going to maximise both the effectiveness and efficiency of sponsorship, while minimising your incremental leverage spend.
The kicker is that this approach involves stakeholders from across your organisation, who need to buy into the value of a sponsorship, and be part of leverage planning and implementation. In other words, you need a sponsorship stakeholder team.
This team will help you leverage and measure existing sponsorships. They’ll also help you leverage short-listed potential sponsorships, establishing the scope of the impact for the brand, as well as determining exactly what benefits you need to negotiate.
That doesn’t mean you don’t need one or more specialist sponsorship managers. They are instrumental in marshalling all of these stakeholders, shaping sponsorship strategy, and managing rightsholder relationships. But, they can’t do it alone. Great sponsorship just doesn’t work that way.
This one is for all those sponsors that sponsor nothing but the most benign properties – the ones no one could possibly have an issue with, like a children’s hospital or pink ribbon day or a major family festival. It’s for sponsors that talk a good game about corporate culture and purpose, but your sponsorship portfolio doesn’t reflect it at all. It’s for sponsors that take a reflexively neutral stance on divisive issues.
You need to stop, take a breath, and broaden your focus.
I’m not telling you to go out and be controversial, just for the sake of it. I’m also not saying that you can’t sponsor some of those uncontroversial properties. And for the record, I have absolutely nothing against children’s hospitals or pink ribbon day!
What I’m telling you is that if your brand stands for something, if your corporate culture stands for something, if your customers stand for something, you shouldn’t be afraid of demonstrating that through sponsorship. Brand authenticity is a powerful drawcard, and even if you alienate a portion of your target market, you’re going to deepen brand love with the rest.
So, if your brand stands for empowerment and giving people a hand up, don’t shy away from organisations that help homeless people get back on their feet, or domestic abuse victims rebuild their lives. If your brand is making big strides toward sustainability, ensure you’re sponsoring organisations that share that commitment, and sponsor in a way that honours it. If equality is a big part of your corporate culture, sponsor LGBTQ+ organisations, or events and services in immigrant communities, or even make a big commitment to women’s sport.
Clearly, these are just a few ideas, and there are so so many more. What I really want you to do is look past the bland, ubiquitous sponsorships that really say nothing about who you are, and toward sponsorships that are a true reflection of your company, your brand, your people, and your customers.
You may be interested in my white papers, “Last Generation Sponsorship Redux” and “Disruptive Sponsorship: Like Disruptive Marketing, Only Better“. I’ve also got self-paced, online sponsorship training courses for both sponsors and rightsholders. Get the details and links to course outlines and reviews here.
If you need additional assistance with your sponsorship portfolio, I offer sponsorship consulting and strategy sessions, sponsorship training, and sponsorship coaching. I also offer a comprehensive Sponsorship Systems Design for large and/or diverse organisations. Please feel free to drop me a line to discuss.
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