Sponsorship to reveal its full brand potential

ITV Sales’ decision to switch its ‘recall’ sponsor measuring service for a qualitative data-based one reflects the industry’s mood to make sponsorship a credible brand-building tool. By David Benady

Slapping a brand name next to a sporting property or hit television programme and hoping the association will stick in people’s minds is no longer enough for the sponsorship industry.

ITV Sales’ decision last week to ditch its free sponsorship tracking service (MW last week) signals increasing dissatisfaction with the idea that sponsorship is simply a means of getting a brand name widely known. Many believe the sponsorship industry will struggle to increase its relatively small share of marketing budgets unless it can show that it has a more fundamental effect on the way people view brands.

The move to cut ITV’s free research service for most clients by the end of this year has been greeted with dismay in some quarters. One observer is disappointed by the move and says it does away with “a good advocate for sponsorship”.

But ITV Sales head of sponsorship and branded content Gary Knight says the service – which has been running since 1996 and measures viewers’ recall of programme endorsements – has had its day. “I want to go onto the next level of sponsorship research and look at the creative fit between programme and sponsor. This requires more qualitative research,” he says.

A new scheme will be set up next year, though it is unlikely to be free, due to the added expense of running focus groups and in-depth sessions with respondents. It will attempt to dig into viewers’ minds and uncover the “inter-brand activation” of sponsorships, how the sponsorship interacts with the programme brand and its content to reinforce both. Knight believes this approach is vital if brand owners are to be persuaded to increase the £100m a year they spend on TV sponsorship, a tiny proportion of the £3bn or so they plough into TV advertising.

On top of this, the sponsorship industry itself is planning to launch a research service next year to prove to brand owners that endorsing a sporting or arts property can enhance their brands in different ways. Some sponsorship agents see this move as evidence that the industry is finally growing up and is winning the battle to persuade marketers that it is a powerful tool for brand-building.

“Previously there has been frustration at the dominance of other marketing disciplines over sponsorship, but it is now evident that sponsorship has come of age and is being increasingly used by marketers to meet strategic objectives both for companies and brands,” says Nigel Currie, chairman of trade body the European Sponsorship Association and director of Gem Group. At the recent ESA congress in Lisbon, he announced that the trade body will create a new tool for measuring and evaluating “all aspects” of sponsorship, from licensing to merchandising and opportunities for direct mail and promotions. This is needed, he says, because there has been too much emphasis on how sponsorships raise awareness and glean mentions in the press while other benefits have been ignored. The scheme will combine research from different sponsorship agencies and be used to demonstrate to clients how their sponsorship spending will benefit them.

But some believe Currie is presenting an idealised version of the sponsorship industry and are sceptical about the ESA’s ability to create an effective method of evaluation. “As an industry, we have failed to convince clients of the true benefits of sponsorships and we have failed to give a standard industry measurement tool. Sponsorship is not thriving in the marketing mix and the reality is that nothing has changed in ten years,” says Ben Pincus, director of sponsorship agency The Works, who was also a speaker at the conference.

He says there are a few clients at the top end of the industry that understand the strategic value of running integrated sponsorship campaigns, citing Vodafone with its Manchester United, David Beckham and Ferrari sponsorships and Coca-Cola’s use of football. But he says this is a small group.

Despite his dismissive comments about the ESA, Pincus has been put in charge of developing the association’s evaluation programme. But he says that if this does not produce adequate results, he will lead a walk-out of the ESA and set up a rival body.

For many brand owners, the problem is: sponsorship can be a hit-and-miss affair and there is little guidance from agents or rights owners about how money spent will help increase product sales.

Kevin Peake, head of brand and customer marketing at npower, which sponsors Test cricket and is in discussions to put its name to Premiership rugby, says: “There is still a sense that the job of the sponsorship industry is to generate lots of coverage rather than generate impact.” While sponsoring Test cricket generates lots of name checks on television and in the press, he says Zurich’s rugby sponsorship achieves greater impact.

And he echoes the view of Pincus that one drawback for brand owners is the lack of a “common currency” to compare the effects of sponsorship across different properties.

But others believe that sponsorship is not amenable to being measured by a common currency since each sponsorship has its own set of objectives. It may be used simply to increase name awareness, as in the case of gaming site 888.com’s sponsorship of Middlesbrough Football Club.

By contrast, Coke’s aim is to reinforce its positioning as an integral part of football. Alastair Macdonald, director of agency Connexus, says: “There aren’t that many sponsors for whom the issue is to compare one sponsorship with another. Information on effectiveness, not a standard currency, is what is needed.”

He points to 02’s Arsenal sponsorship, which he believes aims mainly to generate revenue from fans using the mobile company’s services. And Barclaycard’s sponsorship of the Premiership helped to increase take-up of the credit card. “All that brand owners want to know is whether people buy the product because of the sponsorship, and does it give them an advantage in market share? A standard measure would be dangerous because sponsorship is so unlike a commodity,” he says.

Within the next six months, these new ways of evaluating sponsorship will be launched. But the industry will struggle to persuade brand owners that this form of marketing is anything more than a blunt tool for planting a brand name in consumers’ minds. When the industry manages to show that sponsorship can be as flexible, measurable and have as much impact as rival disciplines such as direct marketing and advertising, the industry really will have come of age.

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