Sponsorship’s Biggest Challenge?

By Ian Thompson



The answer to this question will clearly depend on a variety of factors - your level of experience, whether you’re selling, brokering or buying.


You might feel that brands can’t see the upside of sponsorship, that rights owners don’t understand your brand and business or that the agency is unable to demonstrate a cohesive value proposition.

Perhaps you see the challenge being about the quality and depth of audience data, about having confidence in potential brand and business outcomes, or of your ability to demonstrate these outcomes to the board?

Regardless of how you see these individual challenges, to me they’re all related, all linked together and all stem from Sponsorship’s Biggest Challenge:

MEASUREMENT AND EVALUATION

For the 25 years I’ve worked in the sector, the challenge has remained the same.

Agencies are ambivalent about it. “If we’re honest, evaluation is a bit of an afterthought...” said the UK head of one of the largest global agencies.

Agencies and rights owners and a few brand heads of sponsorship are, in a sense, complicit in a game of validation or justification. It’s in everyone’s interest that a sponsorship investment is seen to be a success.

Measurement briefs are often about proving success and as a result there is a tendency to embrace methodologies that, however unintentionally, show a positive outcome.

It’s why, for example:

- Media values are still in evidence despite not, or never, correlating to any sort of brand or business outcome!

- Brand equity impacts are established by comparing people aware of a sponsorship to those not aware. ‘We see significant uplifts in brand measures amongst people aware of the sponsorship compared to those not ...’ said a VP of strategy on a recent call.

No shit Sherlock. Of course you see an uplift!

But here’s the problem: a comparison between people aware of the sponsorship to those not will always show an uplift, no matter how crap the sponsorship is! ​

The sponsorship sector should note Rosser Reeves (1910-1984). He was the creative partner of Ted Bates & Co, created the concept of the Unique Selling Proposition (USP) and wrote many great advertising lines, including; ‘M&M’s melt in your mouth, not in your hand ’.

He’s also remembered for the ‘Rosser Reeves Fallacy’. A flawed approach to the measurement of advertising which claimed a causal link between recognition and brand outcomes.

But he was wrong. Because he failed to remember that we tend to notice stuff from brands that we know about, use or like. As such we’re more likely to notice their advertising.

It’s why the advertising world doesn’t compare people aware of an ad to those not!

The same applies to sponsorship and makes using sponsorship awareness as the differentiator of performance methodologically flawed.

So next time you see a global bank claim that consideration was 90% higher or the sales of a yoghurt increased by 38% amongst people aware of their sponsorships, remember Rosser Reeves and take the findings with a large pinch of salt.

A consequence of the failure to address Sponsorship’s Biggest Challenge is that the sector is lacking genuine or validated insights into HOW and WHY it works or what the real drivers of performance are.

The sector is not as informed about sponsorship as it should be.

Here’s a quote from a former global head of sponsorship in response to the question, why should a brand sponsor?

Nearly all of the best brands in the world do sponsorship.... As long as you understand the problem you have, sponsorships will have a solution for you one way or another. Chances are it’s going to be cheaper and you’re going to solve the problem faster.

Except. Sponsorship isn’t some panacea to all of a brands marketing problems, and to imply that it’s right for all brands all of the time is simply naïve or disingenuous.

Further, suggesting sponsorship is about ‘borrowed equity’, ‘sharing values’, ‘humanising’, ‘differentiating’ or ‘building direct relationships with the audience’ is unhelpful and misleading.

It’s time that the sponsorship sector addressed this shortfall in insights and faced up to its biggest challenge - to make a genuine effort and embrace measurement and evaluation.

- To become open minded and be sceptical of fanciful findings and to recognise the upside of independent and objectively sourced evaluations, and - To utilise methodologies that reflect how sponsorship works, identify performance and provide the insights and direction that enable brands to improve outcomes.

Brands certainly require the sector to change.

Change will improve understanding, build confidence and increase investment levels. And that’s something we should all welcome.


Ian Thompson is an Independent Sponsorship Strategist