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Until sponsorship marketers are qualified to think, they won't be trusted with brand strategy

Updated: May 9

According to outspoken marketing professor Mark Ritson, only 2 out of 8 marketers have a formal marketing qualification (I fall into the unqualified category but have been doing my damnedest to make up for lost time).

Many would argue that the marketing discipline - as much about pricing, placement and product as it is about communications - is not vocational; skills can simply be acquired over time because they are based on experience, common sense and an element of creativity.

As a result, Ritson argues that marketing communications ‘experts’ are in fact “big on tactics but light on market orientation, research, segmentation, positioning, brand equity, strategy and all the other rich substantive matter.” He firmly believes that a lack of education and training is one of reasons why marketing campaign effectiveness is in decline as evidenced by leading researcher Peter Field in his 2019 IPA paper, The Crisis in Creative Effectiveness- a follow up to two previous analyses of the IPA Databank: Marketing in the Era of Accountability (WARC 2007) and The Long and the Short of It (IPA 2013).

The abundance of such evidence based research, accessible via the likes of the IPA or marketing science organisations such as the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute, is enabling traditional marketers to transform their approach to communications.

Sports marketing should be no different. In a Marketing Week article published in October, adidas bravely acknowledged that an overt focus on performance marketing and efficiency has started to erode their brand and negatively impact sales. Contemporary evidence suggests that across all sectors, 60 percent of marketing budgets should, on average, be allocated to brand-building. Adidas discovered that were only spending 23% on brand (Nike, I suspect, is much more balanced).

Given that sport sponsorship is primarily about brand-building (as demonstrated in this chart by Les Binet and Peter Field – the focus on sales is a blog for another day!), you’d have thought that the industry would be chomping at the bit given we have powerful evidence to validate something that people have always ‘felt’ but could never really substantiate.

However, use of such contemporary evidence is largely absent from any kind of narrative around sponsorship – from rights holders to brands and their consultants.

You could debate the reasons for this until the cows come home.

Although there are an increasing number of exceptions, the majority of rights holder commercial propositions remain stuck in a time warp – their focus is on getting deals done as efficiently as possible and servicing sponsors in a way that is just about contractually compliant.

From a brand’s perspective, I personally believe that sponsorship’s emphasis on tactics has led many to forget why it exists in the first place.

Although sponsorship requires a healthy dose of planning and creative, there is a much bigger emphasis on delivery, operations and general project management know-how. This is a fact of the industry and sponsorship simply would not survive without these skills.

However, the dominant focus on these downstream elements (skills that can be acquired over time) has led to the emergence of a generation of brand side decision-makers whose skills primarily reside in delivery. For the most part, they are not as comfortable addressing bigger questions that sponsorship is trying to answer that can make or break an investment – what the sponsorship is really doing for the business, audience planning, how the brand should show up in that space and questions around effectiveness.

As a result, skills such as project management and delivery have become more valued than genuine marketing expertise. This accounts for one of sponsorship’s “brand” problems inside many organisations and also explains why some marketing professionals look down on the discipline or don’t consider it worthy of scrutiny.

Furthermore, when it comes to sponsorship investment, the troublesome re-emergence of the phenomenon known as “chairman’s choice” has heightened the focus on delivery because no one can figure out why the brand has invested in such a property in the first place (outside of the fact that the boss likes rugby so has decided to sponsor club X meaning everyone else needs to find a way of making it work. Is it any wonder why many of these end up failing?).

By way of real life example, I have been in a room where decision-makers from a major global brand could not agree upon the role that sponsorship plays for their business despite their numerous multi-million pound investments (my jaw nearly hit the floor). It is worth noting that several of these decision makers had been rotated into sponsorship roles from areas of the business with limited marketing function. Coincidence?

While there is no specific sponsorship training grounded in contemporary research and evidence (the European Sponsorship Association has a reasonable diploma, but the syllabus suggests it may not fix the problem), there are plenty of resources available that give a real grounding in marketing communications and, by extension, sponsorship - some of which are mentioned above. Or perhaps there is an opportunity to give our discipline the due-diligence it deserves in a one of a kind bespoke study?

I suspect the majority still feel that no training is required in our space, or that training is only needed for a minority, but unless we become better qualified to answer the bigger questions around our discipline (in conjunction to delivery and execution of rights), we won’t be able to take it forward.

The Secret Strategist works in sports marketing. Contact her/him via the website.

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