Traditionally sports sponsorship, like the least popular kid in the class, was the last option a company would choose to raise its corporate profile. But attitudes are changing.

To use a suitably sporting image, sponsorship has often been seen as a sixth or seventh goal in a match which has already gone 5 – 0 your way. The advertising and other marketing spends have been targeted, allocated, and quite possibly tracked. But in the end, you’re not too concerned whether this last shot hits the net or sails off into the crowd.

With a background in advertising and currently managing director of VA Research, which specialises in work for PR clients, Raymond Marks can sympathise with this traditional view of sponsorship. “The perception was that it could simply eat up your advertising budget,” he says. “The old rule of thumb was that you only went into sponsorship when everything else had already been covered.”

Marks’ experience of sponsorship research at VA supports this view. There were some tracking questions tacked onto image research for a client which sponsored motor racing because “senior management was very keen”. And then there was a single focused piece of research into a programme for a sports sponsorship agency to determine whether the amount of media coverage justified the expense.

But Marks agrees that sponsorship is taking a more prominent role in the marketing mix. And interest is growing in sponsorship as an area for specialist research, not least from larger mainstream agencies. “Until recently, we would do some ad hoc research into sponsorship, but we now have a working party which is being set up with a view to entering this specialist area in 1998,” says managing director of NOP Research Group Ivor Stocker. “We will have a good look at the market to ascertain whether there is sufficient potential in this area.”

There are some interesting figures for NOP to look at. Returning to soccer, just one example – the Carling Premier League – can demonstrate how sponsorship is changing. According to Richard Thompson, sponsorship manager at Bass Brewers, the amount invested by the company over a four-year period trebled at the beginning of this season from 12m to 36m.

“What we did in the first four years was establish ourselves as a key sponsor of football,” says Thompson. “Now we can turn more to how people feel about the brand.” The programme has begun to feed back into above-the-line and below-the-line advertising, including a recent campaign run in conjunction with The Sun. Bass has qualitative and quantitative research carried out into all aspects of its sponsorship, from consumer awareness to how this feeds through into buying behaviour.

Figures from specialist research company RSL put the total value of UK sponsorship in 1996 at about 508m. Of this, 302m was sports related, with an estimated 91m, 70m and 45m linked respectively to broadcast, arts and other sponsorship. The figures compare with a 1991 total of 315m.

“Surprisingly, even with the money involved, many people do not track their sponsorships, although if it was advertising spend they probably would,” observes Sandra Greer, head of sponsorship, sports and leisure at RSL.

But despite the steady rise in the amounts earmarked for sponsorship, sponsors rarely consider that the figures warrant a dedicated research budget when compared with the rest of the marketing spend. It is only a small, enlightened group of sponsors, research agencies report, which is beginning to see the benefits of using specialist research not merely as a one-off measure but as a means of maximising sponsorship impact over time.

Poor sponsorship research can be dangerous, says Greer, especially when objectives are left undefined. “Too frequently, awareness of a sponsorship is added at the end to an on-going image tracking study. This often gives rise to inflated results, bad definition of target markets and a misunderstanding of the objectives,” she says.

In order to underline the risks and opportunities of research and raise the profile of specialist agencies, RSL has joined forces with a handful of other specialists in a Sponsorship Research Action Group.

Another group member, SRI, believes that sponsors should not cut corners on research. “There are quite a few sports marketing agencies which will dabble in research, and our view is that this is quite dangerous,” says executive director Adrian Hitchen. “We are not even talking here about other general market research agencies.”

SRI conducts pre-contract research both for rights owners and potential sponsors. But follow-up research for sponsors is an important part of the agency’s work. One major motor oil company is using SRI to reassess whether its current sponsorship of Formula One and other motor racing is the best allocation of its marketing budget. “The question is whether you actually create a point of difference for yourself, because every other lubricant company is there,” says Hitchen. “And, are you also simply talking to the same people week in, week out.”

Like other agencies, SRI has to face the challenge of matching the image which the sponsor wishes to project with particular sports. To facilitate this process, the agency has graded 36 sports against 30 pairs of extremes from urban/natural to modern/dated.

When attempting to establish the objectives of a multinational, says Hitchen, there are often contradictions between different national operations regarding image and the relative priority of general marketing and corporate hospitality. The Tour de France, he says, may be great in terms of general company image, but problematic for any sort of event for key individuals.

Specialists also have a great deal to offer in evaluation, says SRI, through measurement of coverage, recognisability and surveys on attitude and use. “The difference comes in the construction of the questionnaires, knowing what to ask, and in the interpretation of the results,” says Hitchen. “Do you end up with a narrative or something more than that, putting results into context with reference to norms and taking them through to recommendations?” While Richard Busby, managing director of sponsorship consultant BDS, does not underestimate the value of research, he warns that sponsors are unlikely to dedicate budgets to specialist research when the value of the individual sponsorship may be only a few hundred thousand pounds.

Busby also believes that all too often the wrong sort of research is carried out. “Too many people undertake measurement of sponsorship solely on the basis of media exposure rather than the effect on the company’s image,” he says. The most impressive examples of sponsorship, he adds, have a clear effect on image and stimulate consumer emotions and loyalties.

Ian Spero, managing director of sponsorship agency Spero Communications, shares Hitchen’s suspicion of operations which specialise in consultancy or sponsorship rights but which also claim to offer in-house research skills. “The idea of having consultants and researchers in the same company does cause me some concern,” he says. “It is critical to keep things at arm’s length.”

Spero believes that the importance of research is not always understood. “In my experience, research is still all too often employed to post-rationalise a sponsorship rather than determining the needs and interests of the consumer, thereby enabling the sponsor to plan and act accordingly,” he says.

Spero has a history of collaboration with Marketlink Research, and asked the agency to carry out quantitative research into public perceptions of the Millennium Dome as a subject for sponsorship.

“The sponsorship industry has changed a lot in the last five or ten years,” says Marketlink managing director Angela Diakopoulou. Over this period the belief that evaluation was not possible has shifted to an acceptance that it is, though the emphasis is still placed on post-evaluation, she says, where there continues to be room for growth. But she believes that a lot more work needs to be done at the proposal stage, before starting a programme.

The aim of the Millennium Dome research was to demonstrate how a sponsorship is often sold as a property, but without carrying out the necessary analysis. According to Marketlink, it shows how sponsors have to be clear about such fundamentals as the relevance of the planned programme to target markets and to general marketing objectives. They also need to know how that relevance will be communicated and how the sponsorship as a whole can be activated.

Research involved interviews with 453 consumers – a nationally representative sample in demographic terms, says Diakopoulou. Trade perceptions were gauged through ten interviews, with directors responsible for sponsorship and drawn from companies in as many different sectors. Results showed that 76 per cent of consumers believed it was appropriate for the Dome to be sponsored.

Once consumers were presented with a clear idea of the kind of experience that the Dome would offer, only 17 per cent of respondents said they would feel indifferently towards a sponsor. A sense of involvement from consumers also had a marked effect on their perception of the sponsor’s motives. “When consumers can relate to a sponsorship programme, they are less likely to confuse sponsorship with disguised advertising,” says Diakopoulou.

“One of the ironic findings of the our ‘Sponsorship into the Millennium’ research was that the trade was less confident than the consumer about what sponsorship can deliver,” says Diakopoulou.

Focused research into sponsorship clearly has a role to play. Maybe part of it lies in convincing reluctant sponsors that programmes of all kinds can give a valuable return.

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