This has been a good year for sponsors in terms of visibility. The Olympics followed hot on the heels of Euro 96, and the list of companies associated with such events is impossible to ignore.
Yet just what do consumers make of it all?
At a recent Incorporated Society of British Advertisers (ISBA) conference sponsorship was still being talked of in the same breath as charitable giving, so any new study into perceptions of the medium by both consumers and the trade appears timely. “Sponsorship into the Millennium”, commissioned by Spero Communications, was conducted by Marketlink Research.
“We commissioned it for selfish reasons,” says Spero Communications managing director Ian Spero. “We don’t sell programmes off the shelf, we design them to meet marketing objectives and, therefore, have to be far more analytical in our approach.
“If you are dealing with an existing product, you have evidence about how it has performed in the past. But if it is new you are operating in a void. It is frustrating as there is little research on the public’s general perception of sponsorship, and that of the corporate community. I am hoping that the findings will encourage companies to take sponsorship more seriously as a marketing discipline.”
On the consumer side, the research involved six group discussions in key cities across a broad band of ABC1s and C2DEs, involving 18 to 35-year-olds and those over 35. Meanwhile, 40 interviews were conducted with sponsors, talking to heads of sponsorship, corporate affairs and marketing, across a balanced sample of industry sectors and budgets.
The results take earlier studies, such as that of SRi/Hollis, published in 1993, a step further.
Taken individually, the results probably would not make instant converts of sponsorship cynics. Their real value lies in reinforcing suspicions and theories, and in providing a snapshot of perceptions which can help brand owners plan strategies for the millennium.
“I was surprised at how sophisticated consumers are,” says Angela Diakopoulou, managing director of Marketlink. “We asked how companies communicated with consumers, and how sponsorship relates to advertising.
“As far as consumers are concerned, they see both sponsorship and advertising as a communications medium. But whereas they see advertising as communicating about a product’s unique selling proposition (usp), sponsorship tells them where it comes from and also about a company’s ethics. Basically, consumers are not interested simply in the product but in the company that produces it.”
This curiosity among consumers is not likely to die down. They want information about sponsoring companies, and about their ethical stance. Certain groups in the research even felt that a statement on product packaging about a sponsor’s beliefs would not go amiss.
“I see this as an opportunity for marketers to tap consumers on an emotive level, by communicating where an organisation is coming from, and allowing consumers to identify with it,” says Diakopoulou.
“It is a question of what the company’s objectives are and what messages need to be communicated.
It is not just a question of sport versus art.
“While high-profile programmes would be more suitable for generating brand awareness or for communicating that the sponsor company is well established, more needy sport, art or social areas would be more effective for building reputation and communicating corporate ideals. At the same time, lifestyle activities tell consumers about company interests,” she adds.
Such sentiments gel with sponsors like Belinda Fourneaux-Harris, head of advertising and promotions at Midland Bank.
“Community affairs is going to be a growth area in the future,” she says. “It will grow in response to the Government’s desire for a moral standpoint and because it is non-cyclical. In the US, because they tend to be three or four years ahead of us, the whole area of community affairs has increased significantly in response to consumer demand. We will see more here, particularly if a Labour government gets in.”
The general public has few hang-ups about sponsorship, according to the research. It knows the medium is a promotional tool and that, like advertising, it requires a return on investment. Yet it appreciates that, unlike advertising, it benefits both the sponsored and the sponsor. Many appreciate the fact that, unlike advertising, it is not a hard sell, giving them freedom of choice.
“I know that after the Lilt (Notting Hill) Carnival, having had a brilliant day, I was walking home and saw the Lilt logo,” said a female ABCI in the 18 to 35 age bracket interviewed for the study. “I thought, ‘Oh, I would love a Lilt now and I don’t really drink the brand’. I was not conscious of it really.”Consumers are also aware that some events would not take place if sponsorship was not available.
Yet this doesn’t mean they look at sponsorship through rose-tinted glasses. According to the research, consumers dislike it when a company over-commercialises an event, and view with scepticism those sponsorships which act as substitutes rather than supplements to government funding. Also, although this is more relevant to rights holders, consumers worry about the void which is left when a sponsor withdraws.
It is a worry which perhaps not enough sponsors identify with, since it could affect their image. Claire Jowett, corporate affairs manager at Glaxo Wellcome, is one of those who does. “When we go into a sponsorship there is an indication given of how long that sponsorship will last,” she says. “We also do a lot of below-the-line networking to get more sponsors in – that is part of a sponsor’s responsibility. Another aspect is that it is vital to introduce new ideas when you take over a sponsorship.” The alternative is that consumers won’t notice a change of backers and, anyway, a sponsor ship that doesn’t evolve, withers.
Glaxo Wellcome’s latest venture is to support the National Youth Theatre’s National Auditions Programme. Without it, the NYT might have had to charge those wanting to audition. Glaxo’s involvement with a range of arts projects, including the Music for Youth’s annual Schools Prom, the Foundation for Young Musicians and the Central School of Ballet, underline Diakopoulou’s point about communicating corporate ideals.
The research also highlights that sponsorship objectives have altered during the past ten years. It used to be that employee relations and product trials were seen as an integral part of the programme. Yet now, along with sales, they languish under the heading of secondary objectives.
Primary objectives – in no particular order – include brand awareness/logo exposure; image/reputation enhancement; demonstration of good corporate citizenship; communication with consumers on an emotive level; relationship building; and entertainment/hospitality.
“It shows that sponsors think of the medium as being a much more ethereal concept than a hard-nosed sales tool,” says Karen Earl, who runs a sponsorship consultancy of the same name. “There are very few case studies of sponsorship affecting sales, because most companies don’t use it in isolation.”
An alternative, more cynical, view might be that it is safer to ask sponsorship to meet looser objectives – more what Earl describes as the “touchy, feely” type, than a hard-nosed sales target. Sales figures, after all, are easier to monitor than corporate awareness, and it is the marketing manager’s neck on the line if he sets targets which the sponsorship cannot help to deliver.
Sponsors were asked questions about evaluation, but the responses were a mixed bag. Yes, they said, sponsorship was increasingly measured and there was decreasing reliance on anecdotal evidence. Yes, they undertook media evaluation and recognised the need for consumer research but, sadly, budgets were not allocated to this area and only a minority undertake in-depth consumer sponsorship evaluation.
Reading between the lines, the most common form of research is still probably the counting of column inches, while media evaluation consists of a tracking study with a few relevant questions tacked on to an omnibus survey. Given that an advertising campaign would have quantifiable objectives written into the original brief, it prompts the question of why sponsorship gets off so lightly. Or do sponsors not want to know when they get it wrong?
The study indicates that the research which is carried out is “pretty superficial stuff”, according to Robin Ford, managing director of Dean Street Marketing. “It does not look at ‘pre’ and ‘post’ attitudes to the product. My feeling is awareness is a misused word because what really counts is understanding of a product or brand, not awareness.”
So what does the study tell us about the future? The gut feel, although there are no figures to prove it, is that sponsorship will continue to grow and that social sponsorship will achieve a faster rate of growth than many alternatives. This growth will be fuelled by business success, by a growing understanding of the medium, and by the development of means to justify its value. Success breeds success, and spawns good case studies.
In terms of external factors which will contribute to the medium’s growth, property owners and competitors are growing needier and greedier. The Government is cutting funding, yet consumers are going to demand ever-bigger spectacles and more professionalism. The only way forward is to attract more sponsorship.
This doesn’t mean the medium will get an easy ride. Big events suffer from sponsorship clutter, and costs are going through the roof. Consumers are becoming more sophisticated – and more cynical – and their needs are changing. The sponsor of the future will need to be creative, caring, credible – and to have very deep pockets.