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The art of a title sponsorship

Title sponsorship is first and foremost a way of making consumers aware of a brand name, putting the brand into the mouths of fans as they talk about a team, competition or other property.

  • Title sponsorships are among the most powerful weapons in the sports sponsorship armoury, but also among the most difficult to get right
  • Rights-holders can earn big money and be boosted by the marketing efforts of blue-chip sponsors but must be careful to protect their own brands
  • Brands can ‘enter the vernacular’ of a sport but must be clever in activation to ensure fans understand the ‘fit’ of the partnership.

Sponsorship is first and foremost a way of making consumers aware of a brand name; title sponsorship goes a step further by putting the brand into the mouths of fans as they talk about a team, competition or other property.

Great title sponsorships can result in a sponsor’s name becoming part of the landscape of a particular sport, says Giles Morgan, former global head of sponsorship and events for HSBC and now executive director at the Institute of Sports Humanities. The golf tournaments that HSBC sponsored during his time there often became referred to within the sport simply as “the HSBC”.

“It can, if done well, become a way of passing your own brand into the vernacular,” he says. “That’s very powerful…if they’ve got the association right and there is an empathy and warmth in the partnership of the rights-holder and brand, then the brand gets the opportunity to become part and parcel of the landscape.”

Carsten Thode, chief strategy officer of sponsorship agency Synergy, points to UK health insurer Bupa’s sponsorship of mass-participation event The Great North Run as an example of this effect: “They owned the title sponsorship for so long that people started to think Bupa owned that event. And of course that’s exactly what Bupa wanted them to think.”

This can be particularly powerful for new brands, says Thode. He recalls deciding early on in a brief some years ago by new UK credit card brand Capital One that a title sponsorship was the way to go: “One of the first things we decided was that a title sponsorship was going to be relatively critical…they were relaunching the brand in the UK and they just needed that brand awareness and that brand familiarity.”

Working with Synergy, Capital One title sponsored the English Football League Cup from 2012-13 to 2015-16.

When measured against the media that would have to be bought to achieve comparable awareness, title sponsorships can be very cost-effective, Thode adds: “It’s often comparatively cheaper than recreating that exposure through a media buy…it’s a very efficient media buy.” Title sponsors benefit from a large amount of media value “baked-in” to the initial rights fee, before a penny has been spent on activation or media.

Brands entering into them will often have very specific marketing or business goals beyond brand awareness. Jose-Luis Rosa-Medina, senior director of corporate partnerships and licensing at Euroleague Basketball, notes how the focus of the Euroleague’s long-term title sponsor Turkish Airlines has changed over the eight-year course of their partnership.

“It was about brand positioning and awareness in first phase of our partnership,” he says. “That more and more shifted into sales conversion and communicating very specific messages: new destinations, their vast network, or even their quality…so basically we shifted more towards very specific goals and messages that helped position the brand and led to direct sales conversion.”

Turkish Airlines has been title sponsor of EB’s top-tier EuroLeague competition since 2010. Its deal runs out in 2020 and the two sides have begun talks about a renewal.

(Srdjan Stevanovic/Getty Images)

What’s in it for rights-holders?

For many rights-holders, a title sponsorship will be their single biggest source of sponsorship income. But there are other benefits too. A title partnership with a blue chip, global brand with large marketing resources can promote a property on a level that might otherwise have been beyond it.

Vincent Gaillard, chief executive of European Professional Club Rugby (EPCR), says this was a big part of the attraction of Heineken as a sponsor of his organisation’s flagship competition, the European Rugby Champions Cup: “The most valuable thing to me is to have an international, reputable brand that is committed to take your property further, into new places, into new channels [such as] pubs or any retail space…a brand like this that is going to activate your matches all around the UK or Ireland…or activate in supermarkets shortly before your finals, as an example, is massive in terms of exposure.”

Euroleague Basketball’s decision in 2010 to go with Turkish Airlines as its first title sponsor was driven primarily by the goal of growing revenue, Rosa-Medina says, but would never have happened if the brand was not offering a more comprehensive partnership. This includes EB having a say in which markets Turkish Airlines’ activation budget is spent in.

“We were a growing brand so [wanted to partner] with a brand that had similar goals: exposure and awareness in certain markets,” he says. For both sides, Western Europe and Northern Europe were big target markets. “Germany and France are of very strong strategic importance for us, so many of the activation dollars and euros that are in the partnership we would prioritise to those markets.”

Rosa-Medina says the title sponsorship has contributed to nudging up interest levels in its target markets.

What are the challenges for brands?

When considering investing in a title sponsorship, brands must pay particularly close attention to ‘fit’, Morgan says: “What you want to avoid is jarring. If it doesn’t feel like a natural association, it becomes forced. An international finance company sponsoring an international golf tournament feels like a very natural fit: an old-fashioned sport full of values and heritage, and old banks. Likewise anything with Red Bull that is involving adrenaline sports feels like a natural fit.”

For fans and the public to get that sense of fit, they must understand what the brand stands for, he adds: “The sponsor brand and its own values, mission and purpose needs to be well articulated and well understood so that the partnership with the rights-holder can be understood.”

For this reason, he says that long-established brands that are well known to consumers often make good title sponsors. Newer brands must work harder in terms of activating the partnership to get the same level of understanding.

Activation must artfully manage to “speak the language of the fan”, Morgan says, in order to be memorable. “The whole point of sponsorship I think is the opportunity to humanise brands and engage people and speak the language of that targeted fan. I think a lot sponsors understand all the demographics, but if they then fail to speak like the fan, for the fan, to the fan, they don’t get particularly well remembered…

“You are buying effectively a metaphor for your business, a set of clothing to reach out to targeted audiences. If you don’t engage with the fan…if you haven’t done your research and you don’t know their language, then you become a badge and you don’t become part of the lexicon of the particular sport.”

Thode explains how Capital One did this with the English Football League Cup: “Our entire strategy for Capital One was giving stuff back to supporters. Putting coaches on to take fans to games; we erected new stands in a stadium where Chelsea went to play a tiny club…We would constantly do things that made it feel like we’re on the side of supporters, that we were helping them.”

A challenge specific to title sponsorships is replacing a previous title sponsor. “You have to erase your predecessor pretty quickly,” Thode says. “You have to work relatively hard to change the name in people’s minds…the trick is to do things differently enough and to improve upon what the old sponsor did in a sufficient way that people are like ‘Oh, this is cool. This is better’.”

Additionally, he says, there must be “really, really, massively vigorous policing” of media usage of the property’s name: “The PR guys being constantly on journalists. If ever a journalist got it wrong, pointing it out, making sure they had all the right assets, taking them out to lunch, making sure they’re calling the right way, spotting any time it’s not called the right way and just being on top of it.”

What are the challenges for rights-holders?

Rights-holders must decide if taking a title sponsorship is the right thing for their own brand, which could face dilution or confusion with the sponsor brand. New properties may want to steer clear of title sponsorship until their own brand has become firmly planted in fans’ minds.

Some properties are strong enough brands and having a title sponsor might even diminish their value – elite European football clubs or major league US sports teams, for instance. This can be a tricky decision. To adopt a model like, for example, the Uefa Champions League, which doesn’t have a title sponsor and instead has a group of eight top-tier sponsors that share equal weight, the property must be big enough to deliver value for all these sponsors.

Thode says: “One of the fundamental things that they have to wrestle with is…whether they offer enough value without a title sponsorship. Very, very big properties, something like the Olympics or the Champions League or the Premier League, they can deliver enough value by splitting up their inventory into eight slots or six slots or however much that is. Not everyone can get away with that.”

Some properties are “better off trying to aggregate all that value into one title sponsorship rather than trying to slice your salami too thin”.

Rights-holders that take the title sponsorship route must be selective about the brands they consider. Gaillard says: “I would not have wanted to associate the Champions Cup – which we want to be perceived as a premium brand – with a non-premium brand. To take an extreme example, I wouldn’t have wanted a sausage brand or a cheese brand next to the Champions Cup.” Heineken is title-sponsoring the competition from 2018-19, marking a return after title-sponsoring its predecessor, the Heineken Cup, from 1995 to 2014.

Martin Johnson of Leicester with the original Heineken Cup trophy after the Heineken Cup Final between Leicester Tigers and Munster in 2002 (Tom Shaw/Getty Images)

The EPCR ended the previous title sponsorship as part of a bigger rebrand of the competition. In the intervening seasons it has tried a Champions League-style model with several partners occupying the same top sponsorship tier, but found the market tough. It is sticking to a multi-partner model from 2018-19 onwards, with watchmaker Tissot and rugby equipment supplier Gilbert also on board, but Heineken sits at the top of the pyramid as title sponsor.

Smart rights-holders take measures to protect their own brand during title sponsorships. There is a tension here – as Thode pointed out in relation to Bupa and the Great North Run, many brands, although they may not admit it, would be delighted if in the public’s mind they ‘owned’ a property.

Ahead of the EPCR’s new deal with Heineken, Gaillard says, “the most important thing by far for me was to ensure that we would keep the Champions Cup brand. If you look at history, that wasn’t the case. When we lost Heineken, we lost our brand – all we had left was ‘cup’!”

During the Heineken Cup partnership, the competition logo took the sponsor’s green, red and white colour scheme. This is not the case under the new deal as the EPCR seeks to build the Champions Cup brand. “We are trying to make our brand, the Champions Cup brand, attractive also to other partners,” Gaillard says. “Had it been too green, too ‘Heineken’, that might put off other brands.

“We’ve been trying to truly integrate Heineken – if you look at our logo, the star and our ball, it’s clearly a Heineken star, it’s really embedded. But we have kept the core visual identity, which was blue and gold.”

True partners

A title sponsorship’s prominence requires that more thought and care go into these deals than many other classes of sponsorship. PR around sponsorships often strives to underline the understanding and partnership between brands and rights-holders. When it comes to title sponsorship, experts say, this better not just be a PR line.

Good title sponsorship, Morgan says, “is a proper business investment for big businesses to align with geography and targeted customer and for rights-holders to receive money…but also to co-market with people that will align to their fanbase.

“If it’s viewed in that prism, as a real partnership and a real business investment, with a real sense of working together, there’s every chance a sponsorship will work well, rather than just being a cheque written, logos exchanged and everyone sits back and hope it works.

“I do think title sponsorship is an enormously valuable part of the marketing war chest for brands…it works when there is proper partnership.”


Read more: SportBusiness Sponsorship‘s data report on European title sponsorship deals (£)

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