Great sponsorship strategy in 8 steps


There’s certainly no shortage of posts out there on the web talking about sponsorship strategy. In fact, in the context of sponsorship, the word strategy is used pretty indiscriminately in general, and even here by HBR, as a sophisticated-sounding way of saying ‘this is how to go about sponsorship’: a primer, in other words.

The question of ‘What is a sponsorship strategy?’ can be addressed on multiple levels, so let’s explore some of them here as we follow through the Redmandarin process of sponsorship strategy development.

The start-point, as always, begins with the difference between a strategy and a plan. The distinction can sound semantic, but we distinguish by making a strategic vs tactical distinction, which for us comes down to four points.

Importance : If an objective has strategic importance, it’s of a higher order priority for the organisation and represents a significant advancement.

Prioritisation : Setting goals and priorities is a key part of strategy creation, because a strategy is generally about the intelligent use of resource (even though leveraging capital or assets is a strategy in its own right of course.

Difficulty : A strategy is required when the path is unclear and there is some degree of emergence and change.

Competition : Many areas of strategy exist in a competitive context. Strategy is required to win, to succeed, not just to execute.

For Redmandarin, sponsorship strategy is less about planning – and more about building competitive advantage. How do we create a winning strategy?

The eight stages of great sponsorship strategy

So you have an inkling that sponsorship could bring value to your business – where do you go from here? Do you ask some sponsorship agencies for ideas? Push a quick RFP out into the market? Do you subscribe to Sponsor Pitch? Licence some proposal assessment software?

No, slow down. There are two phases and eight stages you need to go through. Frustrating for all those completer-finishers or production-heads, but skip a stage at your peril.

The two phases are simple : the first is agreeing exactly what you need from sponsorship – the second is then finding it.

Here’s an illustration of the eight stages. Few if any of these are likely to strike you as unusual – but in our experience, most people will skip too lightly over at least one, and generally half of them.

1 Define your strategic challenge

A strategy, as we discussed in a previous blog, is a response to a challenge – and a sponsorship strategy is a response to a business or marketing challenge.

The first stage in developing a sponsorship strategy is therefore, to define that challenge.

Max McKeown’s The Strategy Book opens : “Strategy is about shaping the future” and our approach to sponsorship strategy begins with a single-minded focus on the outcomes that represent organisational value: what problem are we solving and what future state are we shaping? And in our experience, the greatest obstacle to successful sponsorship strategy is the reluctance or inability of clients to identify and focus on key objectives and outcomes.

So at this first stage, we try to resist the pressures that most businesses face to operationalise and offer that rare space for forward planning. As an external consultancy, it’s often easier for us to provide the stimulus for this thinking than it is for our clients. 

The business challenge needs to be precise and expressed as a single or closely connected set of priority objectives. This in itself represents a challenge for many organisations without a well-developed marketing function – again, a significant part of Redmandarin work consists of clarifying these objectives with our clients.

Why is it harder without a well-developed marketing function? Because all organisations operate on sets of beliefs and assumptions. A well developed marketing function will have clear opinions – hopefully evidence-based – about the connections between marketing funnel and channel metrics, and sales. Without a minimum of these assumptions, you’re wading in organisational treacle.

It’s a 101 comment, but these should be SMART objectives. An old acronym : Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-bound. That is, carefully thought through – to be narrowly prescriptive. SMART objectives are essential to ensure that all the creative and executional spin-offs from the strategy, the creative plan, the PR plan etc, remain consistently aligned to the same objectives.

Why is this phase one? Because we’re working back from where we want to be. Future state. The next step is – how do we get there?

2      Prioritise your objectives

Multiple priorities dispel strategic focus. So despite the many benefits that sponsorship can bring, a good sponsorship strategy needs clarity of objectives. It needs to allow the team and senior management to understand, buy into and articulate the ‘Why?’

But the idea is not to persuade everyone to give up on all the other objectives and value-adds, it’s to prioritise and structure these clearly to reflect the strategic focus and ensure stakeholders understand how and at what stage their dominant interests will be addressed.

There are three clear distinctions to help differentiate and structure objectives.

The first is by impact area. Sponsorship usually adds value in three main areas:

  • Brand: improving brand relationship with target audiences
  • Sales: delivering direct sales or supporting indirect sales by channel
  • Employee engagement: strengthening relationship between employees and employer

Although some sponsorships will be aimed at other objectives, most sponsorship objectives will ultimately fall into one of these three categories. And importantly, these areas are separate enough to allow each to serve as the basis of a primary objective without interference. Sure, there are dependencies between brand for example and employee engagement for example but … not many.

The second is by geography, product or division. 

Any businesses – especially if they’re operating across multiple markets or business lines – will struggle to align entirely on objectives. While some markets will struggle with awareness, others will want to prioritise consideration, for example. So objectives will often need to be tiered into global headline objectives, with regional sub-objectives to reflect more specific needs.

The third useful distinction is between business objectives and enabling objectives. Obviously, the priority objectives are the business objective – and enabling objectives are objectives which are critical to the achievement of these : media exposure enables brand-building, for example.

An excellent example of this is from a banking client whose analysis into drivers of NPS had clearly identified key changes which it believed would drive NPS and customer satisfaction. Our analysis of this research allowed us to identify which changes could be supported or accelerated through sponsorship and helped shape our enabling objectives.

3      Map out your touch point needs

So now you have a clear picture of the strategic challenge you’re aiming to address and more broadly how you want sponsorship to benefit your business.

The next stage is to consider these through the lens of audience touchpoint needs.

For the same reason that evaluation begins with measuring awareness, the impact of your sponsorship is directly connected to how your audience engages with it. Without going into detailed media planning, you’ll need to work through – often with the consumer, channel or business partner facing leads – the comms or touchpoint journey and needs. With geographies. The goal isn’t a detailed plan, it’s to understand what touchpoints you will need with each audience, with a broad idea of quantum. Your shopping list, in other words.

At this stage, you won’t require a sense of the split between owned, paid and earned media, that’s for later, when you get to individual property assessment.

But this isn’t a wedding anniversary list where error mean ex-communication. You’re not building absolute buying criteria because you’re extremely unlikely to find a sponsorship which meets all of your criteria. This is simply a list to help your assessment, to help you know what ‘excellent’ and ‘great’ look like.

What you end up with is what we call a sponsorship framework: it gives you an overview of what your sponsorship needs to deliver.

4      Articulate your sponsorship proposition

A sponsorship proposition is a sentence which expresses the relationship between brand (product), sponsorship (property) in terms of the value and benefit it brings. But note that, at this stage, this is not a tagline. It’s the underlying concept which a tagline may then express. The proposition itself is a planning tool – its importance at this stage is because it frequently points towards, or excludes, certain content areas.

Defining the sponsorship proposition can be as complex an exercise as defining the brand itself – but the best sponsorship proposition is indeed the brand tagline because it should already communicate the essential brand message and because the sponsorship will then complement other communications and not interfere. In some cases, the tagline won’t work: it may be aimed at a different audience, it may be too generic to be meaningful, it may not work in the context of sponsorship. In this case, it’s important to arrive at an agreed sponsorship proposition as this will suggest how the brand will relate to the sponsorship.

The task of the sponsorship proposition is to map out the landscape for brand communication. By understanding what the sponsorship needs to communicate about the brand, it allows us to understand which territories are likely to be fertile for messaging and storytelling and which not.

Strategic Framework

All of the work above gets us to what we call a strategic framework : that is, an abstract description of the ideal sponsorship, the dream sponsorship. The diagram above just maps the main inputs – this isn’t what it looks like. This concludes the first half of the eight stages : you know exactly what you’re looking for.

This diagram might seem hugely detailed but we would normally allocate three to four weeks to arrive here – and this timeframe is largely dictated by access to senior stakeholders and the time required by the client to get to consensus on the structure.

5     Identify suitable content areas

So now we’re into the more tangible phase and the area covered by most online articles : how to find the right sponsorship or sponsorships.

Content areas, in our terminology, refer broadly to the subject matter of the sponsorship – where are we playing? The words territory or landscape would also work – we prefer the term content areas because it reminds us that content management is the basis of much of sponsorship. We are working with three dimensional, emotionally charged areas of our collective existence and the disciplines of content management – continuity, relevance, salience – are imperative.

We begin by identifying suitable content areas, measured against their ability to carry the sponsorship proposition. Let’s use a few examples again.

If your focus is on performance, you’re going to take a serious look at sport.

This can be difficult to do without in depth experience of sponsorship, because it requires an understanding of how sponsorships can be structured to deliver a proposition; of what rights-holders can be expected or reasonably persuaded to accept.

Why do we start here? Simply because it allows us to remove swathes of partnerships from the longlist and focus our time on more detailed analysis.

6      Develop your assessment framework

Next up comes the assessment framework.

Your assessment framework is simply your checklist. It’s largely comprised of the elements we’ve covered above – your sponsorship framework and proposition – with the addition of broader brand and audience criteria along with additional criteria relating for example to the likelihood of product integration, direct supply value etc

Our practice, to focus our resources, is to create various levels of assessment, or filters : content area is actually the first, after which audience reach and relevance is the most immediately helpful as the world of sponsorship is brutally segmented in this way.

But keep anything interesting that ticks most of the boxes

This exercise doesn’t work if you rigidly exclude everything which doesn’t appear to work – because you’re likely to end up with nothing. Hold onto the fact that you’re unlikely to find a solution that’s perfect in every respect. Your options will fall down on at least one area of importance to at least one stakeholder. So get into the mindset of seeing how your solution could be built, aggregated or supplemented to deliver your touchpoints or reach. This will also keep you creatively alive – and this entire exercise is worth nothing without vision.

As we’ve said elsewhere, beware of agencies offering silver bullet solutions. Media, social media reach and engagement – these are all valuable inputs, but they aren’t the whole picture. Most of the world suffers from an absence of meaningful media metrics – so while these are useful to know, they’re unreliable and certainly shouldn’t be taken as a shortcut to the answer.

7     Shortlist potential platforms

Finally, a stage that doesn’t require much explanation! This is simply an internal process of deciding which properties, assets or sponsorships make the cut. At this stage, we may well combine options and present two or three properties as a single coherent solution. The aim is to get down to a shortlist of max five, min three.

8      Conduct detailed analysis and due diligence

The final stage is critical. Despite the emotional headwind that may have built up behind certain properties – because they resonate with the business or quite simply because they’re easier to imagine, it’s important at this stage to go deep into the detail.

Audience figures may well be provided by the rightsholder – but now is the time to check them. Syndicated data is a help, but better still go into market : reach and relevance are your two key metrics, because these give you a sense of audience potential.

External due diligence considers the reputation, organisation and governance structures of  potential partners, to anticipate and mitigate partnership risk. Rights-holders are as different as the  sponsorship properties they represent:  ranging from small unincorporated  organisations to the IOC or Unicef. Each  brings its own challenges.

As part of our due diligence process, we engage rights-holders in preliminary, in  principle discussions about sponsorship.

These help us understand:

  • the tolerances around pricing
  • the rights-holder’s strategic priorities beyond revenue
  • the potential for collaboration beyond what is officially ‘for sale’
  • the organisational strengths and weaknesses of the rights-holder
  • their likely negotiating position

The third and possibly the most vital component of due diligence is around vulnerability: how could competitors, or other categories, reduce the value of our investment through tactical acquisition or activity. Lots more to be said on this subject, but space here does not permit.

And one final step which we would always recommend, the absolute Rolls Royce of due diligence, is to test the feasibility of the sponsorship campaign. There might be general enthusiasm behind what a partnership can communicate, but at other times, it’s a leap of faith.

So we create topline campaign plans for the shortlisted partnerships,  including a general idea of brand messaging, campaign narrative,  outline channel planning, activations, budgets, and other resource requirements.

Some of the benefits of this level of execution planning at this stage are that full costs including activation costs, can be anticipated; senior stakeholders are better able to understand how the sponsorship will  work, and provide more tangible feedback; and it ensures the sponsorship is workable and able to deliver. It always seems crazy to wait for creative inspiration to kick in once the cheque’s been signed. (That phrase suddenly seems very out-dated!)

So, that’s it – or at least, that’s the end of this piece.

There’s plenty more to be written about sponsorship portfolios, effective halo strategies, lean sponsorship models, managing internal buy-in, negotiation and procurement etc etc … but that’s for another day.