The most difficult aspect of managing sponsorship investments may not be the finding of a property to sponsor, or even devising an activation program for the sponsorship. As important and challenging as those tasks are, there’s a lot of help out there to handle both. Agencies abound who can help with finding a sponsorship partner and putting some creative things together for activation purposes.
What is more critical is determining what success looks like for the brand invested in the sponsorship. Success can and should be measured on multiple dimensions. At the most basic end of the spectrum, did the sponsoring entity get what it paid for? Were contractual elements delivered, and did they provide expected dollar value? This should be a point-of-entry for any sponsorship accountability initiative, and should be conducted by a neutral, expert third party. This exercise should be a no-brainer; however, many brands don’t even go this far – relying instead on self-reported data from the seller.
Success should further be measured against the brand’s strategic objectives. Why has the brand engaged in the sponsorship, and what does it hope to gain from this association? Ultimately this determination needs to be established in-house with a solid strategic foundation supporting it. Too often, vague goals of “increase brand awareness” or “encourage trial purchases” are all that drives strategy when engaging in a particular sponsorship program. What results is either a scenario where the brand always “succeeds” against these nebulous objectives or one in which marketers encounter understandable difficulty in proving out ROI to the larger organization.
A brand-centric approach provides this strategic foundation, whereby the firm determines those brand attributes most critical to its success and establishes methodology for measuring progress in those areas. This should be done well before a property is selected to sponsor, or an activation program developed. Like any journey, if you start driving in the wrong direction, it doesn’t matter how good of a driver you are: You’re not going to end up where you want to be. The same could be said with sponsorship management. Until there is a clear and measurable delineation of those brand attributes vital to success, the resulting decisions (what to sponsor, how to activate, how to measure) are going to be hindered by poor brand analysis and nebulous objectives.
There are numerous approaches within both academia and industry for categorizing brand dimensions. To me, these distill down to the following four:
- Brand Associations: What do you think of when you hear the name “Harley-Davidson”? How would you describe this brand if it were a person? Tough? Independent? Patriotic? Whenever we are exposed to a brand, associations jump to mind, due to either marketing communications and/or personal experience with the product. These associations are critical to brand success and can be effectively managed through the right sponsorship platform. For example, Harley-Davidson’s sponsorship of the UFC is a perfect pairing of brand associations. It also allows Harley to reach a much-needed younger audience for continued growth. As critical as it is to have a handle on brand associations, this doesn’t tell the whole “brand story”. Thus far we’ve only focused on the brand itself. But a deeper understanding of the consumer’s perception of the brand includes how the brand relates to the them as an individual. The remaining three dimensions address the relational aspects of brand attributes:
- Authenticity: A brand is essentially a promise. Over time, a firm communicates a narrative of how it wants its brand to be “seen” by a target group. These communications create expectations that may or may not be met when the consumer actually uses/consumes it. To the extent the brand consistently meets (or exceeds) these expectations, the brand is seen as authentic. Sponsorships can play a key role in creating an authentic brand. Fans value brands which provide a meaningful, positive impact on their sports consumption experience. However, minimal activation on the part of the sponsor (such as slapping a brand name on the property) can work against this, resulting in the brand being interpreted as inauthentic in its support of the sports property. Fans are more likely to support a sponsor which they see as being invested in the property and fan experience.
- Understanding: Do consumers “get” what the brand is all about? Do they see any meaningful differences in it versus competitive brands? This latter question is one in which sponsorships play a key role. Sponsorships are attractive because of the “noise” they reduce among competitive products. This is particularly true when the sponsor is exclusive for their product category within the sports property. They can tell their brand story without the confusion caused in other forms of promotion, with a competitive brand. Those activation programs which allow the fan to have a touch-point with the product (e.g., demonstrations, samples), allows for even greater understanding.
- Relevance: Unless the brand is seen as fitting into the consumer’s life, checking all the other boxes thus far is of limited value. A brand can be respected and understood, but that alone won’t create a customer until they can envision being a customer. Here the value of sponsorships is heightened versus other forms of promotion: The ability to reach consumers who are already predisposed to see themselves as your customer. For example, from research I know that avid college football fans partake in outdoor grilling at a higher rate than the general U.S. population. If I’m Kingsford charcoals or Weber grills, I know that I can easily find a group of people (via college football) who already see my brand as relevant to them.
Benchmarking along these dimensions early in sponsorship development goes a long way in subsequently making the right decisions as to where and how to sponsor, as well as in determining sponsorship objectives. It’s becoming increasingly crucial – as it should be – that marketers demonstrate real ROI to their companies for sponsorships and other initiatives. Doing so in a compelling fashion is intrinsically linked to having set thoughtful, measurable strategic objectives.
Pre and post-sponsorship research focused on measuring the effects of the sponsorship on the brand determines whether such objectives are reached. Once brands have assured delivery and contractual compliance to the sponsorship agreement, they can measure performance against these dimensions. Sophisticated marketers can even go on to quantify the value of brand lift in these key areas. What is the dollar value to the company of X% movement in a key brand attribute, and how did the sponsorship contribute to that lift? Analyses such as these provide company CFOs and CEOs with the assurances they need that marketing funds are being invested responsibly. Successful sponsorship initiatives with measurable ROI are no accident – they take deliberate, meticulous planning, execution and measurement.
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