Most Important Post-COVID Sponsorship Strategies for Sponsors

I know, I know… COVID isn’t over. But what we are seeing is what public health experts are calling a shift into the “new normal”, and with it, a shift toward normalcy for our industry. And while variants and outbreaks may continue to periodically impact us, it appears that the darkest days for live events are probably behind us.

That said, this is not the time to say, “Hoo, baby! We’re back in business!”, and go back to what you were doing three years ago. It’s time to embrace what you should have been doing three years ago, before the pandemic put the benefits into such fine relief.

So, here’s my rundown on the sponsorship strategies that got forward-thinking sponsors through the worst of the pandemic, and how they continue to serve the industry now.

Have a Plan B, then do it anyway

If COVID taught us anything, it’s that sponsors either need to have a Plan B, or be nimble enough to come up with one fast, in case something goes wrong. Nimble sponsors found themselves…

  • Refocusing leverage on the remote fans (because there were no in-person fans), adding value to that remote fan experience
  • Creating leverage strategies to engage with fans, even when events were cancelled
  • Pro-actively creating new and interesting kinds of content around the properties, while not getting super hung-up on production values, because we had no choice
  • Aligning with fans’ frustration and sadness about the impact of COVID on their fan experiences

There are some industry pros that believe all sponsors should now have backup plans for all of their major sponsorships, just in case it all goes pear-shaped. To an extent, I agree. Where I diverge is that I believe sponsors should be doing all those backup activities anyway. I mean, why wouldn’t you?

  • Whatever you sponsor, there will always be more remote fans than fans on-site. Add value to them, and your brand impact soars.
  • Whatever you sponsor, you should be leveraging both during the property timeframe (event, season, etc, plus promotional run-up) and outside of that timeframe, creating brand and fan benefit for much longer. Could be months. Could be year-round.
  • You should be looking for interesting angles for content development, and it’s more important that it’s relevant and compelling than beautiful.
  • Demonstrating alignment with the fans should be a primary function of your sponsorship program, in good times and bad. Build that alignment, and watch consideration, preference, loyalty, and advocacy rise.

If your leverage plan incorporates all of the scrappy, creative, Plan B things we had to do to keep sponsorships delivering during COVID’s darkest days, that’s going to be a force-multiplier for your results, going forward. And if things do go pear-shaped, and the operations of the property are impacted, you already have a strategy underway that will deliver consistent value to anyone that cares about the property.

Reduce emphasis on expensive, on-site leverage activities

If your leverage plan incorporates all of the scrappy, creative, Plan B things we had to do to keep sponsorships delivering during COVID’s darkest days, that’s going to be a force-multiplier for your results.

Following on from the above, when there’s so much that can be accomplished remotely, with a much broader audience than those who attend in person, you want to rethink the proportion of time, effort, and money you put into on-site leverage activities. I’m not saying “don’t do them”. I’m not saying that at all. What I want you to think about is the opportunity cost, before you make decisions around your leverage plan.

Let’s say you’re planning on doing an on-site activity at every home game for a season, or every day of Wimbledon, or every weekend of a big science museum exhibit, or whatever. That could cost you a ton of money, and it might be super-cool and popular, but how many people will you impact in a meaningful way? How does that number stack up to the possibly millions of remote fans, who are also having a fan experience that could be enhanced by your brand? What if you scaled it back and reallocated some of those funds to meaningful leverage for remote fans? What if you could create a way to scale that on-site activity, so remote fans could also participate in a version of it?

There are any number of solutions to balance on-site and remote leverage, but it won’t happen if you don’t consider the real costs of putting the lion’s share of time and money into on-site activities.

Take a fan-centric approach

You sign a contract with the property. You get benefits from the property. But if you make the mistake of thinking that’s the most important relationship in the equation, you’re wrong. The most important relationship in any sponsorship equation is the one between your brand and the fans.

With an almost total lack of in-person audiences for a good long time, sponsors learned that if they want to engage, align, and deepen relationships with fans, they need to take leverage straight to them, wherever they are. This shift in focus – where you can’t delude yourself that you’re thoroughly leveraging because a visible crowd of fans and the event are in the same place – forced sponsors to think about those broader fan experiences, and centralising them in the plan.

Nothing else works if the fans aren’t the focus. And not fan data; I’m talking about actually understanding and driving sponsorship through the fan experience, and delivering real meaning through the sponsorship.

The easiest way I’ve found to change the focal point is to adopt this mantra:

“Don’t sponsor the property. Sponsor the fans.”

This is not to say that I don’t want you sponsoring properties, but that when you work through what you’re going to negotiate, and how you’re going to leverage, it’s not about connecting your brand with the property, but connecting your brand with the fans, in a meaningful way.

You also need to take into account that there are different types of fans. You’ve got…

  • People who attend or otherwise directly participate in the property
  • People who care about the property, but for whatever reason, aren’t attending or participating right now
  • People who may not know or care about the specific property, but care about the larger themes around it. Think about the personality of what you’re sponsoring. Do any of those traits resonate with your target markets? How can you use that?
  • Staff, some of whom may be fans who attend or remote fans, but others who see the sponsorship in relationship to the corporate culture, ideals, or purpose
  • The communities in which you operate, which may relate to the sponsorship in yet a different way

So, you’re basically honing in on the fans as the drivers of the sponsorship and your results, while simultaneously casting the net wider on who the fans are.

Demonstrate what your brand is about

The personal relevance, scope, and flexibility of sponsorship make it the perfect platform to demonstrate, not just talk about, what your brand is about – the benefits, traits, and personality of your brand. Get your hands on your brand architecture, and start going through the attributes and values, finding ways to actively demonstrate them through the sponsorship. You should be sponsoring properties that are consistent with your brand architecture, and leveraging in ways that are consistent with brand architecture.

Demonstrate what your company stands for

Demonstrating brand values and attributes is great, but don’t stop there. This approach is bigger than that, and should be applied to organisational values and purpose.

If your company has a stated purpose, and it’s not just lip service, purpose-driven sponsorship can be incredibly powerful for a whole range of markets.

In addition, as companies around the world go further with their commitments to environment, sustainability, equality, human rights, and social issues, these commitments should be reflected across the sponsorship portfolio. These can be as universally lauded as working with an environmental charity to elevate the effectiveness of a sustainability policy, or as controversial (in the US) as Levi’s commitment to gun control. Either way, if it’s who you are, fly the flag through the most emotive channel you’ve got: Sponsorship.

Sponsor in ways that are…

  • Consistent with your company’s commitment to sustainability and the environment
  • Consistent with your company’s commitment to equality and equity
  • Consistent with your company’s stand on human rights
  • Consistent with your company’s stand on other social issues
  • Consistent with your company’s stand on public health

Just as important, don’t sponsor properties, or leverage in a manner, that contravenes your commitments, your values, and your corporate culture. It will look inauthentic and undermine your credibility on those commitments.

Use data to inform sponsorship selection and leverage

This isn’t about stockpiling data for some later marketing effort, although that can be a benefit. It’s really about developing empathy; really understanding why people care about a property, how they relate to it, how to leverage in the most meaningful, impactful way, and how that drives alignment to the brand.

That data can comprise rightsholder fan intelligence, market research, third-party analytics, psychographic profiling, sentiment analysis, and more. The idea is to get specific and granular about your markets

In sponsorship, data’s most powerful role is to drive empathy; to understand what matters to people and why.

For instance, if your markets are segmented by how they relate to your brand, that’s super-useful for brand marketing and sales. Likewise, if you use market profiles from market research company, like Prizm Market Segments or Mosaic Segments, that may be useful for your overall understanding of the market. But neither of these approaches to understanding markets are very useful for sponsorship, as they don’t provide any specific insight about why the segment might be interested in the property, how intense their passion is, or the kind of leverage that will have meaning. You might be able to infer it, to some extent, but it won’t come close to giving you the information you really need.

Instead, you either need strong fan experience research from the property – hear that, rightsholders? – or you need to do an exercise of dissecting the property to identify the main motivations for people to care, and extrapolate from there. (I do a lot of this kind of work.)

Make creativity non-negotiable

The COVID-driven pivot to leveraging sponsorship without an in-person audience brought out the resourcefulness and creativity of many sponsors. The game changes, and they realised they had to throw out the how-sponsorship-is-done rulebook, reinvent, and do it fast. This approach paid dividends, and shouldn’t be abandoned now.

Breaking through clutter isn’t about being louder or more invasive than anyone else, it’s about being more creative and innovative, creating meaning around the sponsorship. If not, you’re just an interloper. If you are, it drives consideration, preference, and above all, advocacy.

The starting place is the empathy referenced above. If you understand the fan experience, why people care, and how they relate to the property, it’s relatively straightforward to identify ways that you can make that experience better, make them feel more a part of it, give them influence, and so much more. Assemble a group of stakeholders, break the rules, and fill a whiteboard with ideas. You’ll get some that won’t work, some small, useful ideas, and some absolute, mould-breaking gold.

Get ruthless about your portfolio

I’ve lost track of the number of times clients have told me that only one or two, or maybe a handful, of their many sponsorships are actually delivering results. I hear that more often than not. It’s sort of like the sponsorship version of the 80/20 rule, but it’s absolutely unnecessary.

For many sponsors, COVID was their big chance to clean the dead wood out of their portfolios. Between live events being cancelled, triggering the force majeure clause in contracts and early exits, and budget cuts, the opportunity for sponsors to create lean, mean portfolios was unprecedented.

If that’s what happened in your company, great. Now keep it that way. Don’t sponsor anything you don’t have the buy-in, resources, and will to leverage to the absolute max. Your goal is the sweet spot between efficiency and effectiveness.

If you didn’t do a big portfolio cleanout during the worst of COVID, you should still do it, although with no force majeure clause to allow an early exit, it may take longer.

For more on portfolio structures that work, check out “How to Structure a Sponsorship Portfolio” and “Five Reasons Sponsors Should Consider an Umbrella Sponsorship Portfolio“.

Get expert advice

If you didn’t use the pandemic to make big, sustainable changes in your approach to sponsorship, but see value in doing it, you may benefit from expert advice on your new strategy. Creating a cohesive strategy, with so many divergent needs and opinions can be complex, and ensuring the strategy has organisation-wide buy-in and credibility can be just as difficult.

If your team is well-resourced, across best practice sponsorship and the trends driving the biggest results, and supported by senior management, you probably don’t need a lot of outside help. On the other hand, if your team is already flat out, inexperienced, or your organisation has a culture of valuing independent advice more than internal advice (it happens), collaborating on the strategy with a credible expert may be an excellent investment.

I’m very happy to chat with you about it, if you like. I provide strategic sponsorship consulting, strategy sessions, and coaching.

Need more assistance?

You may also be interested in my white papers,  “Last Generation Sponsorship Redux” and “Disruptive Sponsorship: Like Disruptive Marketing, Only Better“.

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 capacity-building service for large and/or diverse organisations. Please feel free to drop me a line to discuss.

© Kim Skildum-Reid. All rights reserved. To enquire about republishing or distribution, please see the blog and white paper reprints page.

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