Beware the ‘official’ bandwagon

Sponsoring high-profile sporting events is a good way for a brand to get noticed but if fans think it is just trying to cash in on the popularity, this attention will not always be welcome. By Paul Gander

The biggest brands like to be caught on camera at the biggest sporting events. But if you are not in the elite group of sponsors, how else can promotions help you keep up with the pack?Many brands are wary of official sponsor status – even if they can afford it. And with good cause. Integrated marketing communications agency Space carried out research among 400 fans at the last football World Cup. Asked whether official sponsors were genuinely interested in the sports they back, only 11% said “yes”. There were many “don’t knows”, but the 54% who said “no” should give sponsors, and potential sponsors, pause for thought.

Without the rights which come with sponsorship, theming rather than branding your promotions to an event is often the smartest course. James Cullen, director at entertainment media specialist The Portman Consultancy, says the company has tapped into the vast reserves of archive TV footage for numerous sports-themed DVDs. Examples include a Sunday Express disk for the World Cup featuring footage from 1966, and Cricket’s Greatest Entertainers for the Daily Telegraph.

He goes on to explain: “You have to be very careful with licensing, and ensure that everything is done the right way. The IOC, UEFA and FIFA are watching like hawks.”

And he adds: “You could use the logo by working with a non-competing brand which is an official sponsor.” But then, even this type of official piggy-backing can mean planning a year or 18 months ahead.”

Nor are the additional costs and time requirements the only drawbacks. “You need to ensure you will be seen as a supporter rather than simply a sponsor,” Cullen warns. He believes that using entertainment as your medium demonstrate this enthusiasm.

Steer clear of ‘badging’
The alternative is to be guilty, in the sports fan’s eyes, of “badging”. Atkinson at Space cites Hyundai’s sponsorship of the last two football World Cups. “The demographics for car purchase are probably spot-on, but you have to question whether the brand really benefits from this official status.”

The problem is relevance. Sports equipment and drinks brands can justify linking their names to a sports event, Atkinson argues, but the more tenuous the connection, the more likely real fans are to see themed marketing as a sign of cynicism rather than enthusiasm. However, brands that are relevant and add something to fans’ enjoyment can gain real kudos from promotions linked to an event, even without official sponsor status.

Rich Bryson, director at Intelligent Marketing, has tracked the activity of “ambushers” (as opposed to sponsors) over the years. During the last World Cup, while official sponsor Adidas could do more around the grounds, ambusher Nike staged its own Joga Bonito mini-tournament, Bryson recalls. Making similar capital out of footballing personalities. “While there are many limitations on the words and images you can use if you are not a sponsor, there’s nothing they can do to stop you using personalities,” he says.

Nor, of course, is there anything to stop official sponsors doing the same thing. When the full name of a Formula 1 team is Vodafone McLaren Mercedes, the sponsor knows it is on to a good thing. But Vodafone is equally aware that the access it has to high-profile celebrities such as Lewis Hamilton can also be leveraged to great effect.

Experiential marketing agency Ignition, tells how it turned London’s Brunswick Square into a go-kart track for the launch of Vodafone Mobile Internet. “We were able to create the event, fronted by Hamilton, at relatively short notice,” says Stuart Bradbury, business development director. “And he even crashed his go-kart!”

Alongside the biggest seasonal events, from Christmas to Easter and Valentine’s Day, the New Year provides sound promotional opportunities of its own. When Ignition organised Nokia New Year’s Eve, the theme of connecting with family and friends tied in with the mobile phone company’s values – arguably better than dabbling in Formula 1 might have done. 


To bring the theory behind great campaigns to life, every year the Institute of Sales Promotion sets its diploma students the challenge of answering a client brief. This year students were asked to put together a brand experience campaign to demonstrate the benefits of high-definition TV from Sky. The five students with the best answers were invited to pitch to a panel made up of Bob Suppiah, marketing director of British Sky Broadcasting; Mark Ludmon, ISP director of communication; and Daney Parker Marketing Week special reports editor.

Chris Bestley, ISP director of education, who adjudicated the event, says deciding which pitch was the most effective was extremely difficult: “Only five marks separated the top three.” Winning by a whisker was Neil Cameron, junior account manager at Blue Chip Marketing in Manchester. “What clinched it for Neil was his passion for the product and that showed though in his presentation,” says Bestley.

Cameron found the whole experience “quite liberating”. He explains: “Most of my professional time is spent in the world of packaged goods, so the chance to work on a brand in a completely different sector was great fun.”

The other shortlisted candidates who presented their work were: Kathleen Gilley, account manager at Navy Blue Design; Rebecca Longton account manager at Positive Thinking; Zoe Lowes, account director at BD Network in Glasgow; and James Murphy, account executive at Iris.


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