Sponsorship should not be a random act

Somewhere inside the Istanbul headquarters of Turkish Airlines there must be a very large wall. And on that wall are plastered random images of people and organisations that all have two things in common. First, they have absolutely no association with Turkey or its national airline.

Second, they are extremely expensive. I have not seen the wall, but one would imagine an arbitrary assortment of movie stars, supermodels and famous sporting clubs. Written across the top of this wall a large banner probably reads “Turkish Airlines Potential Sponsorship Partners”.

Then, it seems, once a year Turkish Airlines embarks on “marketing planning” by inviting its chairman, Hamdi Topcu, to put on the ceremonial blindfold, stand 20 feet from the wall and throw the all-important Turkish Airlines “Dart of Truth”. The airlines marketing team then rush to the wall to discover who or what they will recruit for the coming year’s sponsorship strategy.

In 2009, the dart landed on movie star Kevin Costner. Despite the fact that Costner had never been to Turkey, ever flown Turkish Airlines, or had ever expressed even the most passing interest in Turkish Airlines – the “Dart of Truth” was infallible. Costner was contacted out of the blue, and paid a small fortune to fly to Istanbul and make a series of TV and print ads in which he was made to “feel like a star” on Turkish Airlines business class service.

In the behind the scenes “making of” documentary, a clearly disoriented Costner smiles amicably throughout the intensive and highly lucrative filming and then hops back onto a plane (one would hope Turkish Airlines but don’t be too sure) back to the US none the wiser, but several million dollars the richer.

In 2010, the planning process for the upcoming year began. We cannot be sure what happened behind closed doors in Istanbul this year, but it seems that when the “Dart of Truth” was thrown it landed between two distinct, ultra-expensive and entirely non-Turkish-related organisations.

First, we learned that Turkish Airlines had become the official airline of Barcelona Football Club. Once again, the airline demonstrated an ability to go for the expensive and arbitrary over the authentic and organic by paying £6.4m for a two-and-a-half-year deal to become the official airline of the Catalonian giants. Cue a super-expensive TV ad in which a Barca training session is suddenly interrupted by a Turkish Airlines jet landing nearby.

Barcelona stars Lionel Messi and Carlos Puyol – currently demonstrating their skills for Argentina and Spain, respectively, at the World Cup in South Africa – are shown gazing at the approaching cabin crew with the same benevolent confusion that Costner exhibited a year earlier. The jingle repeats “We are Turkish Airlines” over and over, presumably to remind the audience as well as the players which arbitrary airline has just turned up.

“The airline demonstrated an ability to go for the expensive and arbitrary over the authentic and organic”

But the dart of truth had not just landed on FC Barcelona. It had also touched down at Old Trafford when the carrier signed a three-year, £7.5m deal to become Manchester United’s official airline in 2010 – again underlining the airline’s love for cost and confusion.

Whatever the process by which Turkish Airlines chooses these sponsorship targets, these decisions are symptomatic of an industry that no longer understands or even respects brand equity. Costner, Barcelona or Manchester United certainly confer global brand awareness, but beyond this simple goal, what of the more complex challenge of building brand associations? Is there even a sliver of brand heritage or genuine patronage in any of this?

Man Utd is about as English as fish and chips, just as FC Barcelona is the most Catalonian thing on the planet. Neither club has any link whatsoever to Turkey. You can only fly to Barcelona or Manchester once a day with Turkish Airlines – hardly an extensive connection. And until the deals were struck none of the players of either team, like Costner before them, had ever even sat in a Turkish Airlines plane. Gone are the days when a sponsorship deal was a more authentic and enduring relationship between brand and patron. Today, it is about big money, multiple logos and short-term contracts.

Turkish Airlines joins a Man Utd stable of more than a dozen global brands including a US sports brand, a Korean city, a German car marque and an Indian telecoms provider all claiming to be “exclusive partners” of the great British club.

The game of global sponsorship is an expensive one. The only way it can be justified is if both brand awareness and brand associations are served by the commercial relationship. Unfortunately for Turkish Airlines, its current raft of high profile, zero authenticity deals means it risks becoming one of the best known most anonymous airlines in the world.

Mark Ritson is an associate professor of marketing

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