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Sponsorship Myth: Image / Values Transfer

Over the 30 years that I’ve been involved in sponsorship so much has evolved – yet, at the same time, it’s remarkable that some aspects of sponsorship have hardly changed at all.

The digital and social media revolution and the resultant availability of data has significantly improved both how marketers understand audiences and amplify messages to them.

Yet, there remains a significant amount of uncertainty around how and why sponsorship works and what success looks like.

As a result, assumptions that were made 30 years ago are still being repeated today and even certain myths that should have been consigned to the bin are still in evidence.

During a recent Unofficial Partner podcast with Richard Gillis, he asked two eminent sponsorship consultants about one of these myths, and I precis… Do the image or values of the sporting organisation rub off or transfer onto the sponsoring brand?

It was with a significant amount of disbelief that both guests said YES.

What? Had I misheard or had the last 30 years not actually happened?

How could this be possible? Let’s be clear on the implications of what the guests said. It’s vital to understand these, especially as they provided no context or caveats.

They implied that when a brand sponsors an event or activity the image or values of that event are magically transferred to the brand!

Therefore, for example, if your brand sponsors the Olympics, the values of the Olympics will be transferred to your brand.

Let’s get real about this. What impression of the Olympics do you have? Remember, it’s our impressions that matter and not what the IOC may claim.

The IOC states the Olympic values are: excellence, friendship & respect. I wonder how these played out at recent Winter Olympics in Beijing?

Here are two headlines from The Times newspaper: ‘Winter Olympics: IOC just too comfortable living with communism’ (18th Feb ’22) or ‘The entire Olympic movement is now hopelessly contaminated’ (15th Feb ’22).

These negative headlines paint a different story about the Olympics to the one the IOC’s values are intended to reflect.

So, in this context, what values get transferred and are they desirable? Are all the values transferred equally to all the partners? Common sense, hopefully, suggests it is not quite as simple as the Unofficial Partner guests suggested.

Why? Because this train of thought relies on some significant assumptions, including that we consciously or subconsciously:

  1. Apply or attribute values to sports organisations in the first place. Which we may at a macro level (e.g. big, sporting, wasteful, tainted etc…), but are unlikely to articulate them unless prompted to do so.

  2. Notice the sponsoring brands and then pay attention to them. Some of these brands may be very familiar to us and we’ll have developed memory structures. Whilst others maybe entirely new to us.

  3. Assess the image or values that we may, or may not apply, to the sporting organisation against what we know of these brands / our memories of them

  4. Revise or update and refresh or confirm our memories of these brands to reflect the new or updated information resulting from the sponsorship

Can we really say that all of the above happens regardless of the brand, its category or the type of sporting organisation or entity the brand is sponsoring? Is this possible?

Seeking to imbue brands with special values via communications is questioned by Byron Sharp.

In How Brands Grow he says, ‘buyers do not need to perceive a meaningful difference (image) to regularly buy a brand’ and that largely, communications do not imbue brands with special values. He says that specific values or attributes are more likely formed via experience.

Evidence from evaluating sponsorship over the last 30 years or so indicates that changes to a brands image / values as a result of sponsorship can happen. But, these changes may be pretty small, usually at a macro level and sometimes they don’t move in the expected direction!

When attributes are positively affected by a sponsorship it’s almost always as a result of a connection that the audience can easily understand. For example a technology brand sponsoring a technology-led sport, such as – Oracle sponsoring the Red Bull F1 team.

These sponsorships, when supported by an effective amplification programme, have proven far more likely to create a balanced relationship and potentially build the ‘memory associations’ that Sharp also refers to in How Brands Grow.

Therefore, planning a sponsorship based on value transference appears flawed. It’s over complicating the communications process and is almost certainly asking the audience to join too many dots.

Brand equity outcomes from a sponsorship are achievable and they tend to be driven by increased likeability of the brand.

Likeability results from an understandable connection with something the consumer is interested in, and cares about, and not as a result of some mythical image or value transference.

So, if you’re looking to boost your brand affinity, consideration and potentially sales from sponsorship my advice would be to:

  • Keep things simple

  • Focus on connection and look for balance to increase likeability

  • Remember that the audience cares about the event or entity being sponsored and not your brand, and

  • Consign thoughts or expectations of image or value transference to the bin.

Finally, it usually pays to have an independent audit of your sponsorship. An independent audit will be free from bias and will provide an objective assessment and a fresh perspective.

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