What are we to make of the $90m (£56m) sponsorship deal between golf tyro Tiger Woods and Nike? Has the world of sponsorship gone mad? I wonder how far this “winner takes all” market can go before it begins to implode, not to mention what such astronomic numbers mean for lesser brands, whose total sales over the same five-year period might never reach such a princely sum. But Nike’s marketing accountants are certain to prove that buying a place for the Nike “swoosh” on Woods’ cap, heel, or sleeve will get more positive associations per pound than any other form of marketing communication. But the trend for exponentially rising prices for key sponsorship properties is a symptom of a watershed. The balance of brand power is shifting. Sponsorship was once about begging bowls and corporate largesse. Then it evolved to become a form of win-win marketing partnerships. Now sponsorship involves personalities such as Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan, events and forums such as Wimbledon and Formula One, and “causes” ranging from Manchester United Football Club through to Greenpeace to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds which are emerging as megabrands in their own right. These new breeds of brands are powerful enough to assert themselves not just as marketing partners, but as lead partners. As far as consumers are concerned it is the sponsored, not the sponsor, that is the real brand. This development illustrates a much bigger sea change within the sponsorship industry: new forms of passion brands are seizing the high ground over brand emotion. The sand is running out for the decades-long attempt to “add” emotional values to unemotional products. A 30-40-year detour in the history of marketing theory and practice is coming to an end. The difference between the new passion brands and brand emotion is that passion brands don’t start with a functional product and then attempt to wrap a layer of added emotional attributes around it. The product itself is the emotion: excitement, fun, a sense of belonging, a belief, a cause, a social occasion. Passion brands give meaning to our lives directly, not as an afterthought, making most traditional brands’ attempts to add emotional value look pale, insipid and artificial. This is slippery ground, however. Every product, no matter how mundane, naturally generates associations, connotations and memories, all of which have their own potential emotional significance. Marketers ignore this at their peril. Brands that do not recognise these emotional realities in their communications are demonstrating that they don’t understand or care about the people they are trying to communicate to. One of the great contributions of the pioneers of branding was their recognition that homo economicus – a rational economic benefits calculating machine – does not exist. To some degree, every transaction is an exchange of meaning as well as an exchange of economic benefits. To this extent, the universal definition of brands as a combination of functional and emotional attributes is spot on. But building brands through a process of adding emotional values to functional products is not necessarily the same thing. At some point, the truth that emotional and functional benefits are always intertwined can become separated from the brand building exercise, and artificial emotional attributes or “brand personalities” are invented which have more to do with emotionally manipulating consumers to close a sale than recognising the realities of consumers’ lives. In crossing over this border marketers pass unwittingly from respect for their customers to disrespect; from branding as a service to branding as an expensive insult to their intelligence. One of the great skills in marketing has been to recognise this invisible boundary, which differs for every brand and every category. For products such as Armani and Rolex, emotional added value is crucial: you are buying a statement about yourself as much as a product, and this statement is created largely by the marketing communications. Other categories such as cars are more complex, with different categories of car falling on different places along the emotional spectrum. In other categories, such as mortgages, emotional added value has little influence. But as new breeds of “pure” emotion brands emerge, this dividing line is beginning to shift radically. Traditional brands are being beaten at their own emotional game by passion brands, and there is no reason why this process should go into reverse. Marketers need to go back to their intellectual and theoretical drawing boards. Accepting the reality of this sea change is the first step. Adding emotional value as the essence of brand building was already suffering diminishing returns because of ballooning media costs, rising consumer sophistication and the emergence of emotional attribute parity. The emergence of various breeds of passion brand has changed the game forever. Which way forward? Functional benefits are not half as dull as many marketers pretend them to be. In fact, in an age of genetic and molecular engineering, the Internet and other technological developments, a New! Improved! product is more important than it has ever been. The same technologies are creating opportunities for radical cost – and therefore price – changes. Meanwhile, broadening the focus of innovation from products to processes (value for time, for example, and the marketing of experiences) opens up endless opportunities to appeal emotionally as well as functionally. Embedding yourself as a credible supporting actor within the overall experience (as Nike is doing with sports) is now a viable option. Nevertheless, the high ground of emotion in branding is passing on, and every marketing strategist needs to reflect this shift.
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