Sponsors’ Guide to Avoiding Mediocrity

The Sponsors Guide to Avoiding MediocritySponsors all over the world are embracing best practice sponsorship – adding value to the fan experience, aligning with fan and customer passions, and favouring meaning and creativity over volume or visibility. This is fantastic, and as the gulf between great sponsors and old-school sponsors widens, more see the light and jump the chasm.

Except the sponsors that don’t. They decide that their best approach is incremental improvement, and they count it as a “win” if their sponsorship isn’t as crap this year as it was last year. They’re no longer textbook terrible, but they are utterly lacking in distinction. All the sponsorships in the portfolio look virtually the same. They’re the beige stucco wall of sponsorship.

As British politician Benjamin Disraeli once said, “The most dangerous strategy is to jump a chasm in two leaps”, but that’s exactly what you’re doing. Meanwhile, your competition is racing away on the other side!

So-so sponsorship is an abomination. The only thing that could make your sponsorship worse is if it were wearing Crocs and singing Nickelback. Why? Because you’re not just blithely doing sponsorship badly, which is easy for a pro-active sponsor to change with a new skillset and approach. No, for whatever reason, your company has made the decision to be mediocre. With sponsorship permiated with an abundance of meaning, passion, and flexibility, there’s simply no excuse for wasting that power.

If you’re reading this and realising that some, if not all, of your sponsorships fall into the category of “mediocre”, I’ve got a few strategies that could help you shift your approach and get much better results.

Offend people

Okay, I’m not actually telling you to go out and offend people on purpose, but I am telling you to at least be prepared to offend some people.

Whatever you do, it will be accessible to anyone online, at least, and there will be someone, somewhere who will kick up a stink about it. As Taylor Swift so eloquently put it, “Haters gonna hate hate hate hate hate”. But by making your leverage activities bland and boring, in an attempt to mitigate a couple of those “hates”, you are watering down the meaning that connects your brand to the fans.

You probably think I’m overstating this, but I can assure you I’m not. I’ve seen hundreds of great ideas watered down to the point where the sponsor might as well not do anything at all, as one stakeholder after another brings up some potential issue that someone may have with the activity or message.

Think about Coca-Cola for a second. There are Coke drinkers from all walks of life, all cultures, religions, sexual, and political persuasions. If Coke tried to keep all of them happy with every marketing campaign, their marketing campaigns would probably be reduced to the words, “Please drink Coke”. Instead, they market to various target markets in whatever way is going to be most effective.

Following that thinking, I recommend that rather than vetting your leverage ideas with an eye to “will this offend anyone?”, you ask yourself these questions:

  • Is this idea true to our brand?
  • Is it appropriate to the target market(s) that we are trying to influence with this sponsorship? Does it align with them?
  • Is it clearly aimed at the target market(s) we are trying to influence?
  • Is it ethically sound? Eg, not bigoted or mean-spirited?
  • If we alienate some people, is the increase in alignment with others worth it to our brand?

That final question is a big one – one that sponsors are increasingly gravitating toward. They realise that being true to their brand, their organisational culture, and the passions of their most influential markets is more powerful and effective than neutrality. Just ask Nike about Colin Kaepernick and dreaming crazy, or Levis about their investments in organisations focused on gun control.

If the answers to those questions are “yes”, then vet it against best practice and your brand strategy, and run with it if it works.

Let people miss out

The only thing that could make your sponsorship worse is if it were wearing Crocs and singing Nickelback. Why? Because you’re not just blithely doing sponsorship badly, your company has made the decision to be mediocre.

One of the basic premises of win-win-win sponsorship is that the third win is for your target markets – the fans – with small meaningful benefits going to lots of people, not the chance to win one giant thing for one person. (For more on best practice basics, download “Last Generation Sponsorship Redux”.)

That doesn’t mean that every fan has to get every win. If one of your target markets is current customers, go ahead and give those customers a “win” that not everyone gets. Give your customers free bag check at a festival or express lane entry to a sporting event or whatever. Don’t worry about backlash from people who aren’t your customers not getting that specific “win”, because if you structure your leverage program well, there will be lots of “wins” – some going to all fans, some to current customers, and some to subsets of fans, such as families with young kids.

If you limit your brand to offering only “wins” that will be available, and equally appealing to everyone, you will be missing out on one of the most powerful ways you can show your current customers that they are valued, evoking both loyalty and advocacy.

Take a stand

If you sponsor something that is facing controversy, and your target markets care, you should use your position as a sponsor to amplify those concerns and take a stand. That’s right… you should side with the fans.

This is much easier when there is really only one right side. Take the NFL, for example. After years of reports of player violence, and a league culture that wasn’t taking it seriously, the situation finally hit critical mass in mid-2014. In this situation, there were only two real choices for sponsors – speak out in disapproval of the behaviour and culture or keep quiet – and many of the sponsors chose to speak out.

FIFA sponsors finally stood up for the fans, calling for an end to the corruption and cronyism in the organisation. This not only resulted in significant improvements, it added depth and meaning to the sponsors’ relationships with fans.

Remember the end game

Your end game for sponsorship – and any marketing activities – is to change people’s perceptions and behaviours around your brand, and to increase people’s alignment with your brand. Period.

Getting people’s email addresses is not a prerequisite for that. Neither is getting them to “like” your brand on Facebook, particularly if all your brand does on Facebook is talk about your brand.

Don’t be so preoccupied with getting people’s data that you miss the opportunity to really connect with them, to build affinity and preference, to engender advocacy. If you do those things, people will move naturally toward your brand – sharing their details if and when they’re ready. But if you build a leverage program that is primarily about getting future access to people, they will know you’re doing it, and that will build cynicism around your brand, not affinity.

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t give people ample opportunity and reason to connect with you, but don’t make it a prerequisite for fans to get a “win”, or it won’t seem like a “win” to them.

Let it go… let it goooooo…

If you’re going to move toward best practice, you really need to let go of the old-school approach. You can’t do both – straddle the chasm – despite many sponsors trying. If you do one leverage concept that’s fantastic, but nine others that are intrusive on, and/or disrespectful of, the fan experience, those are the activities people will remember.

There is an exception that makes this rule: If your organisational culture doesn’t embrace change, one of the ways to introduce best practice is to sneak some of it into your leverage plans to demonstrate the worth of win-win-win. If you do that, however, it is a short-term tactic, not part of your overall strategy.

Be true to your brand

Stop looking around at what other sponsors are doing, and stop referencing how sponsorship has historically been done. Instead, look at your brand and find ways to demonstrate what your brand is really about.

It’s the marketing equivalent of Miss Congeniality. Your sponsorship isn’t sophisticated or beautiful enough to make any meaningful impact, but you didn’t offend anyone. Whoopee.
  • If your brand is caring and helpful, add value to the fan experience in a way that’s caring and helpful.
  • If your brand is innovative, do something really innovative.
  • If your brand is about understanding the customers, leverage in a way that lets people customise their fan experience.
  • If your brand is brash, create at least one “win” that is a little crazy and over-the-top.
  • If your brand is nostalgic, create a way for fans to share their memories.

This list could go on and on, but I’m sure you get the idea.

The upshot

There is no excuse for mediocre sponsorship. It’s the marketing equivalent of Miss Congeniality. Your sponsorship isn’t sophisticated or beautiful enough to make any meaningful impact, but you didn’t offend anyone. Whoopee.

There are thousands upon thousands of resources that will help you get across the chasm to best practice, and I’ve listed a number of them below, but the first step is deciding that mediocre just isn’t good enough. A great starting place is these two white papers:

Need more assistance?

Want to build your sponsorship skills and strategies fast? I’ve got comprehensive online sponsorship training 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 service for large, diverse, and decentralised 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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