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Is there a place for purpose in sponsorship? Maybe. But don’t lose sleep over it.

Brand purpose just feels right.

The idea that businesses should adopt a socially responsible reason for being beyond driving profit.

There are a handful of businesses that were genuinely born with a purpose.

Many have ‘become’ purposeful or are in the process are trying to do so.

Fair game.

However, there is an increasing scepticism towards purpose these days.

Whether companies need to worry about it.

Whether purpose actually influences people’s purchase decisions.

Whether organisations can actually balance profit and responsibility.

Whether it’s a distraction from a business’s core reason for being.

Whether organisations should advocate purpose before they get their own house in order.

Things get even more complicated when you chuck marketing into the mix.

Some see marketing and purpose as two sides of the same coin.

Others see purpose marketing as a sign that marketers have lost confidence in their ability to sell their products.

Simon Sinek keeps saying, “People don't buy what you do. They buy why you do it”

Jenni Romaniuk of the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute said, “A brand’s purpose is to sell stuff.”

Marketing Week’s Tanya Joseph said, “As we look to a future when the Covid-19 crisis has abated, brands have the power to unite us, inspire us and forge a new way forward if they are willing to try”

In Eat Your Greens, Kate Richardson wrote, “Too many brands are orienting themselves around a lofty, higher purpose that goes beyond the goal of profit, straying too far from their unique value and category realm”

On one hand, purpose definitely works for some.

Especially those founded with a true purpose.

On the other, there simply isn’t enough evidence to suggest that purposeful companies are generally more profitable (for example, the often cited “Stengel 50” has been heavily critiqued).

There’s no blueprint for this stuff.

So when it comes to using sponsorship to express a brand’s purpose, brands are still working it out.

But many are still struggling.

There’s a big financial services sponsor who says that its role within a sponsorship is to help a particular sport grow globally.

A seemingly meaningful way to express the brand’s core ‘purpose’ through sponsorship.

But three questions spring to mind.

  1. Isn’t ‘growing a sport’ the job of the rights holder/core organisation?

  2. Why is this sponsor trying to do the job, especially one that isn’t endemic to the sport?

  3. Does this particular activity drive tangible brand or business outcomes for the sponsor?

The answers are quite possibly as follows:

  1. Yes (particularly the domestic ones)

  2. A blend of legacy, politics, contractual commitments and a loose connection to the business’s brand story/purpose that’s only really understood by the marketing team

  3. No. ‘Success’ is probably quantified by the numbers of kids that take up the sport rather than an actual ROI for the business

Many are increasingly ruminating about how to make sponsorship more purposeful.

Rights holders want to capitalise on this narrative and encourage sponsors to “play a more meaningful part in fans’ lives” to help “build their brands” and “generate goodwill”.

An article about the “power of purpose” in sponsorship from sport and entertainment agency, MKTG, said, “Using sponsorship to create meaningful, believable demonstrations of brand purpose will drive the industry forward and give a more credible, significant answer to the “so what?””.

The sentiment here is positive and well-meaning.

But it’s also quixotic and bit marketing-y.

Marketers tend to over-estimate the extent to which people think about and analyse brands.

They also inflate the incremental consideration given to supposedly purposeful brands by normal people.

Meaning that it’s easy, particularly for non-endemic sponsors, to fall into rabbit holes of their own creation.

This isn’t to say that purpose doesn’t have its place in sponsorship.

But a sponsor’s rationale needs to be clear and obvious.

To a normal person.

And, the focus should be on delivering tangible benefit for all parties, including the sponsor.

Tom Roach at Adam&EveDDB wrote: “When what we really need to do to prove our value to society, is to prove our commercial value first and foremost – to have pride in the value we create and so demonstrate the role we play in driving the economy, and therefore society, forwards.”

So, when it comes to financial services, for example, why focus on getting more kids to play the game when there’s plenty of scope to support the huge financial burden sport places on its stakeholders?

Not that getting kids to play more sport is wrong.

It’s just so far removed from the core proposition of this particular sponsor’s business.

And very difficult to derive a decent ROI without serious investment.

The same logic could apply to other non-endemic sponsor categories if purpose is their thing.

An opportunity to create a genuine role for a sponsor.

But if purpose isn’t their thing, then don’t worry about it.

Normal people won’t notice.

MKTG suggested that purpose is sponsorship’s “missing pillar”.

It’s a nice thought.

And it could be.

But it probably isn’t.

The Secret Strategist works in sports marketing.

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