Adults and children are becoming increasingly sceptical about advertising. Insisting that your product is bigger, better, cleverer, tastier or cheaper than another does not cut the mustard anymore.
This means the impact of advertising is becoming increasingly difficult to calculate. As one advertiser put it, we know that 20 million people watch Coronation Street, but how many people remain in place to view the advertisements halfway through?
Senior sponsorship manager at the TSB Richard Owens says: “As advertisers, we have to be smarter. Rather than engaging people in a passive monologue, we have to engage them in a dialogue with the brand.”
This form of dialogue is best performed through sponsorship, but not necessarily with big-money, large-event deals. As most detractors of this medium would point out, sponsors have no control over their message and dialogue with the audience is as remote as a 30-second commercial.
Increasingly, however, companies are getting involved in smaller-budget, community-based schemes, which they see as a far more effective way of communicating their message.
From Tesco’s sponsorship of computers in schools to Volkswagen’s sponsorship of the Lollipop Lady, the industry is becoming more imaginative and ultimately proving more beneficial to the company and the community.
Head of sponsorship at Marketing Perspectives Peter Raymond says one of the reasons sponsorship needs to become more innovative is that more of the high-visibility events are being signed up by the larger corporations on a long-term basis.
“There are not that many such opportunities available any more. Besides which, companies are realising the benefits of sponsoring low-key events. In the US, for example, there’s a general toning down of the commercial exposure that a company seeks from sponsorship. Over-commercialisation is having a negative reaction and companies are finding the more subtle they are about their sponsorship, the better consumers are reacting,” he says.
In the past, community sponsorship was often written off as a cause close to the heart of the chairman’s wife, or a feel-good contribution made by the chairman himself. However, economic realities are such that the chairman – and his wife – now want to see a commercial benefit in return for their largesse.
Managing director of Roar Marketing & Promotions Ian Shirley says: “For many years, sponsorship of the arts and of local events was seen to be through the goodwill of a particular company. But now people are moving away from merely badging an event to asking some hard marketing questions about what they are getting for their money.”
Shirley points out another vital factor: “As government and local authorities struggle to find funding, they have had to turn to commercial bodies for help. In the past, businesses may have sponsored ceremonial gardens in the town centre, but local authorities are looking for more than that.”
But if these sponsorship programmes are small and community-based, what possible commercial benefit can the sponsor get from it?
Ian Anderson, community investment programme manager at Whitbread, has a budget of 1.9m and says he expects to see a return on that investment. “This is not just philanthropy,” he says. “We are looking for a business return. We want more customers coming through the door as a result of our sponsorship. But it also helps us commercially to be seen in the community as a good long-term community player.”
Whitbread is involved in a range of community sponsorships, from school programmes to environmental projects to small business support, and although the company is well known for its large-scale sponsorships, including the Whitbread Round the World Race and the Stella Artois tennis tournament, Anderson says the company is increasingly moving towards local involvement “because that’s where our customers are”.
“Ten years ago, all the decisions about sponsorship spend would have been made at head office. Now the decisions are made locally – closer to the core of our business,” says Anderson.
Chairman of the Institute of Sales Promotion Peter le Conte was responsible for the development of the Volkswagen sponsorship of lollipop ladies almost four years ago. This sponsorship programme is seen by many in the industry as the ultimate in community-based sponsorship.
Le Conte says Volkswagen was trying to communicate that it did not just care about drivers, it was also concerned about the environment, pedestrians and motorists. Volkswagen sponsored the jackets worn by lollipop ladies.
Le Conte says: “In exchange for paying for the jacket, VW got its branding. It meant that the lollipop lady had a better quality uniform and the local authority could spend the money on another aspect of road safety.
“Sponsorship at a local level means that you can achieve your objective and you have much more control over the programme. It’s far easier to take brand ownership of a smaller event.”
Of all the multiple retailers, Sainsbury is best known for its big sponsorship events – particularly in the arts. But sponsorship executive Marah Winn-Moon says Sainsbury is increasingly making these programmes work at a local level.
“It is no good writing a faceless cheque from head office. That is not the same as getting involved in the local community and providing real support. We use sponsorship as a means of com- municating the core values of our brand,” says Winn-Moon.
The Sainsbury’s Community Investment Programme ranges from a number of national and local arts projects to education, urban regeneration, community work and projects which concern mothers and children in particular. This reflects the fact that two-thirds of Sainsbury’s customers and staff are women.
Winn-Moon says Sainsbury’s also has a sizeable budget to respond to the hundreds of letters that come in each week, asking for funding for particular local projects.
In all these situations, the management of the local stores are consulted about the relevance of the project and its benefits to the community.
Again, one of the chief commercial benefits of these programmes is a glowing public image. Winn-Moon says: “Having the right image is very important to Sainsbury. We target our sponsorship programmes and commit ourselves those areas where we think there is a particular need in the community.
“We avoid name branding or sponsoring a one-off product. Nor do we want to attach our name to a children’s charity just to have our name on it. The public, including children, are very sophisticated and know when something is not for real.”
The TSB is also involved in sponsorship on a grand scale, including athletics in schools and sports for the disabled as well as school education programmes using the National Curriculum.
The TSB’s Owens says the bank uses sponsorship to access the whole community. “We try to enable the consumer to experience the personality of the TSB brand. An increasingly popular concept is ethical buying – in other words, because of limited product differentiation, people’s decision to buy something is based much more on how they feel about this.
“It’s the Body Shop principle,” adds Owens. “People buy from The Body Shop because it feels right. This is what sponsorship can give you.”