Backer tracking

With the ITV companies looking to research to offer quantifiable results to clients, broadcast sponsorship could be heading for a period of real growth. Martin Croft reports

For a UK market worth 40m a year, no one knows much about television sponsorship. Although its worth is relatively small compared with the money spent on traditional TV advertising, sponsorship has only been going for a handful of years – and has plenty of room for growth.

The stations offering these deals need to be able to prove to marketers that they

can deliver. Indeed, many involved in television sponsorship want far more than that: they need to be able to offer an equivalent to the TV spot ad, which can then become the accepted “currency” for buying broadcast sponsorship.

This was behind the announcement at the end of May that the ITV companies had commissioned research company Millward Brown to run a continuous tracking study of the effectiveness of all ITV network sponsorships, in what ITV says is its biggest single research project to date.

The Millward Brown research will track ITV sponsorship through 300 computer-aided telephone interviews weekly. It will measure consumer awareness of both TV spot ads and sponsorship, as well as levels of brand recognition. Consumers are also being asked whether they think sponsors and programmes are suitably matched, and for their attitudinal response. The intention is to separate the incremental effects of sponsorship from the effects of spot advertising and so provide a proper measure of sponsorship.

Rosi Ware, UK managing director of Millward Brown, says the research should provide the impetus which broadcast sponsorship needed for real growth. “It was growing, but quite slowly. A lot of people were interested, but they couldn’t see what they got back. There was no currency. We needed to provide the equivalent of spot TVRs, to push broadcast sponsorship onto the next level.”

Millward Brown was already collecting considerable amounts of data about sponsorship on behalf of its manufacturing clients. In some cases, those clients were telling the television companies how happy they were with the results of their sponsorship deals, but not actually providing them with the data (which the clients had, after all, paid for). Those within the ITV companies responsible for promoting sponsorship were frustrated by this, as TSMS head of marketing and sponsorship Tim Brady admits. “We were beginning to get aggravated by research from Millward Brown which told clients it worked really well, when we couldn’t get our hands on that research. Agencies were saying to us ‘the client loved it – and that’s all we’re telling you’.”

Brady is happy with some of the information the research has already thrown up. For example, he says that it has allowed broadcast sponsorship marketers to advise clients on ways to get more out of their budgets through good use of creativity and “appropriate” sponsorship.

He says: “Viewers think very hard about the message when they see it. They are pleased when the association [between the sponsoring brand and the programme being sponsored] makes sense, and unhappy when it doesn’t. For example, our research shows that the sponsorship of the holiday programme Wish You Were Here? by Barclaycard made sense, because the association of the two was logical. But viewers also made it clear that they thought a ‘bad’ sponsor would have been a holiday company, because then the independence and integrity of the programme would have been brought into question.”

Of course, he acknowledges that reaching consumers is not always the only criteria for any marketing activity. Appliance company AEG sponsored the Agatha Christie Poirot detective drama series, a link-up which research suggested was not always clear to the viewers, but which AEG was apparently very happy with because of the effects it had on its UK workforce. “AEG liked it because it made its staff feel good,” Brady says.

The research, Brady says, will also be assessing how sponsors approach things creatively. “You can have an appropriate sponsor, but if you don’t have a good creative treatment, you can lose it.” Good creative work, however, can steal the show – literally, as was the case with the last Rugby World Cup, in 1991. Sony was the UK broadcast sponsor: but its credits (which used special flying cameras to provide a “ball’s eye view”) were so memorable that most viewers automatically assumed it was sponsoring the whole event, which it wasn’t (The main sponsor was The Famous Grouse whisky). They also “remembered” its perimeter advertising better than that of any other company – despite the fact that it didn’t actually have any advertising around the pitches. This year, Heineken Export has avoided that problem by sponsoring both the event and the television coverage.

The Millward Brown sponsorship research for ITV will be tracking far more than just awareness of brands. It will also be measuring image change, Ware says, in an attempt to quantify the “halo” effect, where consumer feelings about a television programme are transferred onto the sponsoring brand.

Some might argue that the decision by ITV to run ongoing research into its network sponsorship deals will free clients of the need to pay for that research themselves: Ware believes, however, that any client who is spending money on sponsorship should still be conducting their own research – including up-front research before the deal is signed to make sure that the “fit” between the brand and the programme is a good one.

The arrangement between ITV and Millward Brown also relates only to network sponsorship. It will not be tracking regional sponsorship deals. Nor will it provide data on cable or satellite television, or on radio, all of which have seen an explosion of interest in sponsorship over the past few years. Indeed, the advent of cable and satellite was one of the main factors behind the relaxation of the rules which banned sponsorship on ITV back in 1989.

Those who are in the business of selling cable and satellite television realise that sponsorship and other “non-traditional” (for the UK, anyway) ways of generating revenue such as programme barter and syndication will have to play a big part in the development of non-subscription revenue in the years to come. Put simply, they know that they cannot compete with ITV and Channel 4 in spot advertising.

ITV’s national research programme could represent a threat to cable and satellite channels, if it means that clients begin to put their money behind networked sponsorship deals because they can get free data. It could also represent a threat to the income streams for many research companies which have been conducting tracking studies for brand-owning companies.

These threats, however, have to be put into perspective. Cable and satellite TV and radio may see some money being diverted away from them because of ITV’s sponsorship push, but it could just as easily be argued that ITV is doing them a favour by putting sponsorship on solid ground, and that the results might well be to develop the market as a whole, by convincing clients of the value of all sponsorship.

Similarly, most of the brands involved in sponsorship already do extensive qualitative and quantitative research. They are unlikely to cut back significantly on such research. Furthermore, the fact that the ITV research is national means that client companies are still going to have to buy their own regional data.

Research into the effects of sponsorship deals which run on the ITV network, or on Channel 4, is relatively easy to set up. Research into the effects of sponsorship deals which run on cable or satellite television, or on regional or local radio stations, is rather more difficult and expensive.

The reason is simple: there are large numbers of research programmes already set up to examine the effects of various marketing activities on the national consciousness. These can fairly easily be adapted to include data collection about the impact of sponsorships seen by a national audience.

The moment you cut from a national audience to a local one, however, you need to bring in bespoke research programmes, because of the difficulties of identifying, isolating and talking to a large enough representative sample. This is not, in itself, a problem, but it would involve a much higher level of expenditure.

Ware believes that it should be relatively easy to extend the ITV programme to include research into cable and satellite TV and radio. “It would do the industry no harm to extend coverage to include satellite and cable. We are already tracking that for our clients.”

Finding the funding could be tough – and it is highly likely that Millward Brown will be approaching the Radio Advertising Bureau at some point to see if it would be interested in a programme similar to the ITV one.

Chris Chapman, group sponsorship and promotions manager for The Metro Radio Group, says that her company can arrange for independent market research companies to conduct tracking studies for clients should they wish them, although each study has to be bespoke – they do not have any continuous programmes at present.

But she warns that it would be impossible to compare different sponsorships on a like-for-like basis, particularly if they relate to different broadcast sponsorship media. She thinks that this will cause problems for ITV’s hopes for creating some sort of currency for buying broadcast sponsorship. She observes: “Sponsorship by its nature shouldn’t be compared like for like. It’s not the same as TV advertising: the effects of sponsorship are very difficult to quantify. Advertising is much simpler. With sponsorship, there cannot be any overt message, no direct call to action. Sponsorship is all about image – there’s no real trigger.”

The big threat to cable, satellite and radio, and to Millward Brown’s research company rivals, is if ITV and Millward Brown are allowed to claim the moral high ground through their attempts to create a currency for sponsorship buying. If they are allowed to define the parameters of that currency, then they can do so in a way which suits them (in much the same way that a single European currency based on the Mark would favour the Germans).

Jon Wilkins, head of sponsorship research at Research Services, admits he sees it as a threat. “One of the concerns I’ve seen aired is that this research is intended to create some kind of currency for buying sponsorship,” he says. “My understanding is it’s trying to ‘score’ different types of sponsorship against each other. I don’t think it can ever do that. Yes, we need a source of data at low cost: but you have to tread very carefully when you are comparing data on different sponsorships.”

He does not believe, however, that his company will be that hard hit. The sort of clients it has for its tracking studies are likely to carry on with their own research, which he believes fulfils different objectives for them to what the ITV research will achieve.

Karen Earl, founder of the eponymous sponsorship marketing consultancy Karen Earl, believes there are motives other than bringing in new clients behind ITV’s research. She says that the opportunities for big sponsorship deals on the ITV network are now relatively few and far between, and suggests that real growth for ITV network sponsorship is going to have to come from increasing the amounts clients pay – and without this sort of research to prove the efficacy of sponsorship, ITV will never be able to push up its rates. She warns, however, that “some clients are still going to be sceptical. It depends how in-depth the research is and how much of it is revealed. I still think clients will want to have independent research done.”