Sponsor ‘fit’ with brand is new debate

Over the years, Marketing Week has been a good source for current developments in sport sponsorship. As someone who teaches sports marketing at Loughborough University, I have collected numerous case examples from the magazine. Roger Baird’s recent articles (MW February 25 and March 25) about the cricket and athletics tie-up with CGU, plus Nic Gault’s response (MW April 8), gave me an excuse to look back through my ever expanding sport sponsorship file.

While browsing through these “back issues”, a recurring theme became apparent. Much of the sponsorship reportage concerns its role in developing brand awareness for the sponsor and the reciprocal flow of funds for the sport. Much less coverage has been given to the more long-term strategic role of sponsorship in building brand values or a brand personality. An exception was the unattributed sponsorship director who questioned whether a financial service company would be as useful in repositioning cricket as McDonald’s might be (MW February 25).

Nic Gault of Barclaycard touched on the same theme when he noted that consumers were now much more sophisticated in evaluating sponsorship arrangements. This view is in line with recent academic research from Australia that identifies the need for a sponsor/ sport “fit”, sincerity, longevity and a sizeable commitment to achieving strong positive transfers from the sport to the sponsoring brand.

Viewing sport sponsorship more from a brand building perspective generates a number of big questions that at present do not seem to have good answers.

Will sports become more concerned about the effect on their brand of “inappropriate sponsors” – sponsors which do not match their actual or desired target customer profile?

Will sponsors begin to reassess their financial commitment if they are the ones which are brand building the sport (as Channel 4 may be doing for cricket this summer)?

Should sponsors begin to view a sponsorship arrangement in the same way as if they were embarking on a brand extension? In both cases, the brand as a symbol is being used in a new market context and there is a danger of diluting the brand.

Will sponsorship deals that involve multiple brands such as the FA Premiership, Carling, Sky and Ford lead to confusion and more cynicism from viewers? If not, will all parties benefit or will there be a brand captain which “wins” (Formula One), while others are treated like hangers on – Marlboro, according to Alan Mitchell (MW November 20 1997)?

If, as research suggests, a good “fit” between the sponsor and event produces a strong impact, how effective will sponsorship be where the fit is deliberately distant to facilitate a more radical repositioning (Silk Cut’s sponsorship of rugby league)?

The list of questions goes on and on. In the future, sponsorship is likely to become even more expensive and building brand differentiation even more imperative. In this context, such questions are destined to become more important than the “how much for what awareness” ones of the past.

Gareth Smith

Senior lecturer in marketing

Loughborough University Business School


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