Sponsorship vs Partnership: Will This Argument Ever End?

 />Air New Zealand recently posted an amazing video, featuring their <a href=staff welcoming the All Blacks home from the Rugby World Cup with a haka. It was spine-tingling, and I shared it on LinkedIn myself, as an example of the passion and authenticity that Air NZ brings to all of their sponsorships.

One of the commenters on the post chastised me, because they said that Air New Zealand would surely look at this as a partnership, not a sponsorship. I could only think one thing:

Here we go again.

So with that, here’s the case for “sponsorship”, why I’m not shifting on that term, and why I don’t think you or our industry should, either.

Evolution doesn’t require rebranding

Sponsorship has evolved a lot in the last forty or so years. We’ve been through four, distinct generations, shifting from focusing on visibility to (finally) focusing on the right thing – the fans. We’ve gone from purely transactional deals to relationships that are heavy on both collaboration and mutuality. But even though we’ve got the focal point in the right place, and we’re getting the relationships right, it’s still evolving. Ever-changing technology, lifestyles, and populations mean that evolution will never stop.

But the evolution of sponsorship to the amazing, multi-faceted, authentic, meaningful medium it is doesn’t require rebranding. Put a Polestar next to a Model T and the evolution is stark, but they’re both still cars. Sending someone a message used to mean using a bloody telegraph. Now it means using any one of countless apps and technologies, but yet, it’s still a message.

So, when I’m told that “we call it partnership now”, I fail to see any point, aside from trying to grab some fictional high ground on sophistication.

Sponsorship offers clarity

In a functional sense, this is the biggest problem, and it happens primarily on the sponsors’ side of the equation.

“Sponsorship” indicates a specific type of relationship, and that understanding is consistent across the company. Sign on a meeting room door says, “Partnership Meeting”, it could be anything. Sign on the door says, “Sponsorship Meeting”, and everyone knows generally what it’s about.

Every department in a corporation has “partnerships” and they’re all completely different. There may be joint logistics or distribution partners, joint ventures in new markets, R&D partnerships, service delivery partners, and on and on and on. Partnerships abound!

On the other hand, “sponsorship” indicates a specific type of relationship, and that understanding is consistent across the company. Sign on a meeting room door says, “Partnership Meeting”, it could be anything. Sign on the door says, “Sponsorship Meeting”, and everyone knows generally what it’s about.

Why should our industry give away a distinct term, offering specificity across large organisations, in favour of one that’s both ubiquitous and vague. Answer is: We shouldn’t.

Legally, sponsorship and partnership are different things

You want to give corporate legal heartburn? Conflate sponsorship and partnership.

In most cases, partnership agreements involve a degree of shared goals and liabilities that goes further than the, frankly, transactional nature of a sponsorship contract. That’s right, transactional. While the relationship between a sponsor and rightsholder might be very collaborative and mutual and partnership-oriented, it would almost never be considered a partnership, in a legal sense.

There are some cases where a relationship is a genuine partnership, with shared goals and liabilities. For instance, a university could collaborate with a museum on a range of jointly owned educational programs and exhibits.

For rightsholders, “partnership” is often lip service

Calling sponsorship “partnership” is inherently more problematic for sponsors than rightsholders, simply because most rightsholders don’t have lots of other types of relationships with partners, but that doesn’t mean this whole sponsorship vs partnership issue isn’t pertinent.

Here’s the thing: Simply calling sponsors “partners” is, in and of itself, meaningless, yet I’ve had countless rightsholders in workshops and meetings touting the fact that they’ve moved to that term, with the rationale often being that it “sounds modern” and “makes the sponsors feel more important”. I’ve heard it so much, you can barely see me wince anymore.

Sponsors don’t feel important when you call them “partners”. They feel important when you understand their business and target markets, and provide them with meaningful information and ideas, so their leverage programs soar. They feel important when you add value to the relationship, while acknowledging that the most important relationship in the equation is between the sponsor and the fans (and their other target markets). They feel important when you keep them in the loop, and do what you say you’re going to do; when you understand where your real value to them lies, and can help them to use that value effectively.

Sponsors really don’t care whether you call them “sponsors” or “partners”; do whatever works for your organisation, and if you’re offering your sponsors a truly sophisticated, mutual, and collaborative experience, that’s fantastic. But if you’re not, don’t delude yourself into thinking you can call the same old approach “partnership”, and it will mean something, because it doesn’t.

The upshot

While this terminology question is a perennial issue, there doesn’t appear to be any good reason for it. Staying with “sponsorship” is clear and practical. Shifting to “partnership” is voluntarily giving up the equity, clarity, and specificity of “sponsorship”, and for what? Posturing?

Our industry doesn’t need to change its name to be seen as a sophisticated marketing medium. We don’t need to call what we do something else to look more cutting edge. We just need to demonstrate sophistication – to demonstrate what modern, best practice sponsorship looks like, how it works, and what it delivers – because that’s where our industry authentically earns its respect.

“Sponsorship” isn’t a dirty word, and what we’ve done together to grow the sponsorship industry is something we should all embrace. Or, as another commenter on my Air New Zealand post, Tim Matykiewicz, put it…

“Sponsorship is the term. Partnership is the goal!”

Need more assistance?

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, covering the whole sponsorship process, with lots of inclusions. Interested? Check out the Corporate Sponsorship Masterclass for sponsors and Getting to “Yes” for rightsholders.

Rightsholders, for all you need to know about sponsorship sales and servicing, you may want to get a copy of The Sponsorship Seeker’s Toolkit 4th Edition.

If you need professional assistance with sponsorship, 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/or 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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