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Normal people don't care about sponsors

Normal people don’t care about sponsors and most sponsors pretend it’s the total opposite.

There are some two illusory truths (aka fake news) in sport sponsorship. To clarify, sport sponsorship is where brands make marketing investment into teams, leagues and associations primarily in return for IP usage (e.g. using the club/team/league for marketing purposes), brand exposure (e.g. a logo on a shirt) and other ‘rights’ (such as tickets, hospitality, use of talent etc.)

One of these is the assumption that brands become “part of the family” when they sponsor a club, league or organisation.

This is a myth that’s an extension of a bigger idea gathering momentum across the marketing industry, where the people working within it suffer from so-called “delusions of brandeur”. This condition comes about because marketers live and breathe their brands each day and so develop the tendency to overestimate the role they play in normal people’s lives.

Note how marketers talk about consumers seeking much more ‘meaningful’ relationships with their brands. The truth is that there’s very little evidence to suggest that people desire relationships with brands at all, or that buyers even spend time thinking about brands unless they need to buy something. The upshot sees a frequent inability to separate what is interesting to marketers relative to what is relevant for their customers.

Challenging these assumed truths makes everyone better placed to make the most of their sponsorship investments, while focusing resource and energy on things that actually make a difference.

Most normal people would prefer a scenario where sponsors don’t exist. I have been in a room where a brand-side marketer stated that he/she wanted his/her sponsorship to be so powerful that the brand would be missed if it was no longer “part of the family”. Nonsense. The truth is that most brands wouldn’t be missed if they disappeared off the shelf tomorrow.

The only thing that truly legitimises sponsorship in the eyes of a football fan, for example, is the revenue it brings to their club (this is not the case with big organisations like FIFA or the IOC. Although people love their product, they have little affiliation with the organising entity behind it. As such, people are likely to be even more indifferent to their sponsors from the outset).

A small selection of sponsors tries to help fans in some meaningful capacity (Virgin Media temporarily subsidising the cost of away tickets was a noble and oft-quoted attempt) or create campaigns with a universally relatable truth at the heart. But most stand still or elect to tell brand stories that end up looking rather vanilla to everyone but themselves. This is always a missed opportunity.

Many sponsors and their consultants pretend this isn’t the case by leaning on research amongst fans to create self-validating narratives such as “fans are more positive to my brand because we play a part in their match experience” or “fans are more likely to consider my brand because we sponsor their club”. Fans will, of course, tick these boxes when completing surveys. It’s exactly what they are expected to say and they are fully aware of this. As advertising mogul David Ogilvy once said, “the trouble with market research is that people don’t think what they feel, they don’t say what they think and they don’t do what they say”.

A more potent sign of fan’s indifference is the amount of ‘misattribution’ that takes place in sponsorship (funnily enough, this gets brushed under the carpet). This is when fans think, for example, that Barclays are a sponsor when it’s actually NatWest. This is because fans assume that a bank of some description is likely to be a sponsor and basically guess which one it is likely to be.

This critique may appear to be negative, but it’s a much more interesting starting point for a sponsor when looking at how to make the most of an investment. Much like advertising, sponsorship is about being noticed. And, being noticed requires you to be remarkable, useful or entertaining regardless of whether you sponsor a bland entity like FIFA or a club with an emotionally engaged audience. The exception is if you're a beer brand at which point there’s a clear and obvious need for you to be there. Many talk about how well Heineken and Guinness ‘do’ sponsorship, but it’s actually pretty easy for them when compared to say, a bank or a car. Emirates is perhaps another exception, but then it helps to be backed by the Dubai government because you can literally sponsor EVERYTHING.

The Secret Strategist works in sports marketing.

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