Say “sponsorship” and most people think of sport. From televised coverage of Premiership football to the badges on a Formula One driver’s overall, sponsorship is everywhere. But the sporting approach doesn’t suit all sponsors. There may well be many potential customers among a sport’s fans, but there are probably many more who couldn’t care less about (for instance) fast cars or fizzy pop.
For this and, as we shall see, other reasons, exhibitions and trade shows are popular subjects of sponsorship – they provide a relatively well-defined and characterised audience for the sponsor. And it doesn’t have to stop there: an event sponsorship can get the sponsor into the public eye. Think “Ideal Home Show” and you’re more than likely to find yourself thinking “Daily Mail”.
After having decided to sponsor a show (or aspect thereof), the obvious next step is to work out which one. After all, a sponsorship budget can be wasted as easily as any other if it isn’t used carefully. Wembley Arena Conference & Exhibition Centre senior commercial and marketing manager Julie Warren says: “You have to be careful what you sponsor – it has to be relevant. There may be companies that are quite happy to sell you sponsorship which is not ideal for your company or brand.”
Whether a sponsorship opportunity is relevant depends on a number of factors. There is the show’s size, reputation and target market to consider, as well as the sponsor’s size and overall marketing strategy. It is also necessary to note whether the sponsor (or a competitor) is also exhibiting at the show and less quantifiable aspects such as whether the show and sponsor brands “fit” well together.
Opening many doors
If the prospective sponsor does decide to proceed, what benefits can it expect to reap? It depends on what it’s looking for, says Warren: “It’s an opportunity for hospitality with existing clients; it’s an opportunity to align your company with another brand that will assist and endorse your own brand.”
Jo Redfern, head of classifieds at The Independent – which sponsors two recruitment shows: the University of London Career Service’s (ULCS) Graduate Fair and Jarvis Exhibitions’ TheGradFair – and The Independent on Sunday, adds to this. She says: “There’s also an almost subliminal aspect: if we work with a company that is organising respected events within its field, we get a knock-on boost from being seen as the partner of an organisation that has credibility.”
An exhibition sponsorship is, primarily, a way of getting the sponsor’s brand seen by a self-selected and relevant market, but there are numerous ways for the sponsor to spin off further benefit, aside from the glow of being associated with what is hopefully a prestigious and successful event. A show sponsorship can be spun off into the sponsor’s own advertising, for instance, giving the sponsor a “reason” to advertise when it may not have a product launch or promotion to base a campaign around. In addition, a show sponsorship will often provide the sponsor with hospitality opportunities for clients and staff, whether through access to preview days, free tickets or by other means. It can even provide a chance for a sponsor to distribute product samples without actually taking a stand at the show.
And activity doesn’t have to be limited to the period of the exhibition. Fergus Mitchell, managing director of exhibition company Interactive New Media, points out that a show sponsorship can be used in marketing activity both pre- and post-show – the latter depending on the event’s success, of course.
From an exhibition organiser’s point of view, having a sponsor makes sense beyond the simple fact that it brings in revenue. The organiser can benefit from its association with a credible brand and from being included in the sponsor’s advertising. In addition, a sponsor can bring in extra guests, should it choose to take advantage of the hospitality opportunities a sponsorship provides.
Many organisers find that the best sponsors are media organisations, and in particular newspapers. Redfern explains: “People would pay a lot for the amount of editorial space a sponsorship can provide. Having a media sponsor gives the organiser a huge cost-saving.”
Bruce Birchall of Jarvis Exhibitions, show director for TheGradFair as well as the Careers and Jobs Live show, is also a fan of media sponsors. He says: “From our point of view, it’s to do with broadening the name of the exhibition. A sponsor such as the Independent or Heart 106.2 will attract more visitors to our event – through advertising, promotional work and editorial space – and will also broaden the opportunity for exhibitors to hear about the show. The sponsor provides coverage, through a far-reaching medium. That’s why we go with media sponsors – their advertising and commentary reaches a huge audience.”
From little acorns
There is no need for smaller companies to despair, however: event organisers can always find a sponsorship opportunity for those whose budgets will not stretch to a headline or naming sponsorship. The list of options includes (but is certainly not limited to) signage; brochure, programme and catalogue sponsorship; and tickets.
Another common category is merchandise sponsorship – in particular the bags with which guests are presented as they arrive, usually containing vouchers, fliers and an exhibition guide. Many sponsors choose to invest in heavy-duty plastic or cloth bags, which visitors are likely to take home and reuse. It may also be possible to buy product- placement, with the item displayed or given away either in the bags or around the exhibition. It may even be possible to sponsor a speaker at a conference or seminar.
Of course, a sponsor doesn’t have to put its name to a physical aspect of the show at all. Many shows have dedicated websites, and these too can be sponsored. Wembley Arena even sells sponsorship of the regular e-mail bulletins from its website, Whatsonwembley .
As with any marketing strategy, sponsorship can have its pitfalls. In addition to Warren’s words of caution about the relevancy of a sponsorship, Birchall warns of the possibility of brand dilution. He says: “If a sponsor is associated with too many events, it can dilute the impact of individual shows.”
Redfern echoes this from the sponsor’s side: “If you work with some of the big names in a field, you need to be careful that you don’t go on and sponsor every other event in that sector – it can dilute the quality of individual brand associations.”
Both Birchall and Jonathan Morris, assistant commercial director at ULCS, advise against taking too narrow a view of a sponsorship deal, lest it be ruined by lack of imagination. Morris says: “Where sponsorship has failed to deliver, it has generally been through a lack of exploration of what the two sides can really offer each other. A focus that is too narrowly based on the basic elements (advertising in exchange for cash) is a wasted opportunity.”
Birchall is careful not to name names, but says: “We did have a situation where we worked with a sponsor for a short period of time, but it didn’t work out because the sponsor’s interest was solely in generating revenue.”
Redfern recalls a more unusual problem with a sponsorship deal: “I had to call the police on one occasion, at a recent event in London. Competitors to the organiser employed people to hand out leaflets on the steps of the event. We had to get the police to chase them away.”
A more common worry for sponsorship organisers is conflict. Some possible conflicts are obvious: BMW and Mercedes-Benz might be reluctant to take part in an Audi Motor Show. But it may not always be so easy to judge. As Mitchell says: “Organisers need to feel comfortable about the companies they involve in sponsorship, and ensure that their brand messages don’t contradict the show theme.”
And as with any form of marketing, evaluation is essential. If sponsor and sponsored don’t know how well a particular deal worked, they are not going to know whether to repeat the deal, modify it, find a new partner or abandon sponsorship altogether.
Warren emphasises the need to be clear about the objectives of the project from the start, and lists a few possible aims for a sponsorship: maximising the brand’s profile among existing clients; attracting new clients; raising the brand’s profile within the industry; and providing unique hospitality opportunities or staff incentives.
Morris believes that mutual benefit is the key: “I judge success by the development of a real partnership, where we share ideas and create events, products and services that provide opportunities for both sides to benefit.”
Of course, there are other indicators of success. Redfern says: “The moment I knew sponsorship was going to work, when we first started to get involved, was when I was sitting in the coffee shop of a major event and I noticed one of the attendees with the supplement we had produced for the fair. She’d taken it to the fair because it had a map in it, and she was going through, picking out and circling ads.”
A good sponsorship, then, can be greater than the sum of its parts. Sponsor and sponsored can, if the deal is well thought-out, benefit from each other’s marketing muscle and reach to expand their markets, reward customers and staff and improve their profiles and reputations.
But it all depends on doing things properly and with clarity. It is essential that all parties understand the exact details of the sponsorship and are happy with them, or there is a risk that the harmonious activity upon which any successful sponsorship depends will be disrupted.
And as Birchall says: “Sponsorship is a two-way street. Nobody’s going to sponsor anything worthwhile unless they see a benefit, whether it be material or commercial.” Although the sponsor pays the event organiser, both sides are in effect customers, and both need to be satisfied.