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Brands shouldn’t ignore sponsorship’s point of difference

In the old sports business model, advertisers used to foot the bill for sports content. Now consumers are more likely to pay for the content but are still being bombarded with marketing messages. Richard Gillis asks if sponsorship would be better served by a more philanthropic approach.

When judging industry awards, I’m always struck by how few of the nominees I’ve encountered before, out in the real world.

This means that quite often, being asked to give it a prize is the first time I see a sponsorship activation.

This isn’t particularly surprising. If it’s not aimed at me, it exists outside my own personal bubble. Digital marketing’s big promise is to reduce the wastage associated with above-the-line media spend, so me not seeing the activation isn’t a flaw, it’s a badge of honour – evidence that the targeting is watertight.

I get it. It’s all about objectives and sponsorship can do big and small, mass and one-to-one…yadda yadda yadda. You pay your money and make your choice: buying IP and working it via social can work and rights-holders are cutting and dicing inventory into smaller and smaller packages to accommodate this.

My question is, does it matter?

To be effective, does sponsorship need to have a broader existence in the world and touch people beyond a tightly-defined target audience?

I suspect the answer is yes, it does matter, and that in the rush to do the small, measurable things, something bigger is lost.

This is because, arguably more than any other form of marketing, much of sponsorship’s appeal is about big intangible signals: to sponsor something infers generosity and power on the brand, two very valuable attributes.

The substantial upfront cost is a clear signal of commitment, a power signal demonstrating a firm’s innate confidence in the future. A less robust, fly-by-night company wouldn’t do this.

But for those intangible messages to land, it requires an approach that is deeply unfashionable: buy the right rights and stay there, for the long-term.

This approach positions sponsorship closer to philanthropy, which also makes it easy for clever people to mock.

To many in the sports marketing industry, the philanthropy argument is laughably old school, like wearing a monocle. The two terms have evolved to mean different things, separated by the expectation of commercial returns: philanthropists give money away; sponsors invest it.

One is a gift. The other is a contractual arrangement, turning the thing being sponsored into an asset – a property – to be exploited for commercial return. When someone gives me something, behavioural science suggests I’m inclined to reciprocate, with my gratitude or my attention. By contrast, digital sponsorship in particular has become ever more overtly commercial – more tactical, more grasping, more obviously on the take. There’s a whiff of desperation about brands seeking to wrench a human response from fans under the guise of engagement.

And just as power and generosity are big intangible signals, so too are neediness and the type of ‘click this for a prize’ contempt that seems to pervade many tactical activations. Perhaps this is why fans don’t seem very grateful for the presence of sponsors in their lives: it’s not because they haven’t seen the signals, but because they have.

They’ve noted that, in an era when sponsorship has boomed, so too has the price of tickets, merchandise, beer and food. Then they think back to the old model, before marketing became so sophisticated, when the ads paid for the content. They watched TV for free and the brands footed the bill. A fair and transparent trade-off, that underpinned the consumer-media relationship.

Now they’re paying for the content and they’re bombarded with commercial messages, meaning effectively they’re paying twice: once with their money and again with their attention.

‘What’s in it for me?’ they might fairly think, as the brands come back for a third time, begging for clicks online, trying to hoover up their personal data. The more obviously transactional the approach, the more tightly targeted via a social rabbit hole, the less a brand looks like a sponsor and more like just another company doing digital marketing.

My guess is what goes around comes around, and those using sponsorship to do small things shouldn’t be surprised if it’s them that ends up looking small.

Richard Gillis is a journalist, author and strategy consultant.