#101 What is sponsorship?

investec 101 bw header

This is the first of Sponsorship 101  – a series of posts intended to provide an excellent foundation for anyone interested in, or starting off in sponsorship.


We’re all exposed to sponsorship, pretty much every day of the year, but the sponsorship 101 question is : what is sponsorship?

My first conscious exposure was age six: my dad worked for the investment arm of Midland Bank (now HSBC), and Forward Trust sponsored Formula 3 and then later, the superbike king, Barry Sheene. Sponsorship gave me some stand out memories of riding round the Castle Donnington circuit in a hospitality car, the insane shriek of the bikes in constant orbit, and the Forward Trust brand – everywhere! 

Quite a risk-taker for financial services sponsorship!

For the most part, sponsorship is when a company becomes an official supporter of an event, a team, a person, an organisation, a major venue or media content – in exchange for a range of benefits. In practice, sponsorship is much more varied but most people will be familiar with one or more of these examples. The thing that’s being sponsored is called the rights-holder (or if it’s a person, the talent!). Some people use the word sponsee – but it’s an ugly term and has never really caught on in the industry.

A sponsor receives three main benefits

  • its logo is usually given exposure somehow by the rights-holder;
  • it has permission to use the rights-holder’s logo in its communications and describe itself as a sponsor, or comparable term, of the rights-holder; 
  • and it receives some sort of permission to communicate and engage with the rights-holder’s audience.

There are plenty more benefits, which will vary by rights-holder but we describe these as the main benefits because together they confer on the sponsor the benefit of association – and that’s what sponsorship is all about at its heart : brand association.

It’s a subtle process, with all kinds of subconscious processing. It’s often difficult to measure with precision. There are plenty of ways to get it wrong. But the heart of sponsorship is about a target audience associating the sponsor with the rights-holder.

Coca-Cola : Endlessly reinventing the pathways to association.

Sponsorship 101 : sponsorship's key contribution

It’s important in a number of ways.

Let’s say your brand is really traditional, old-fashioned even. Many building societies are still very traditional, behind the logo and website. Many luxury products play on a highly traditional image – such as as Jaguar or Moss Bros. It doesn’t matter what the truth is like under the bonnet, the external image needs to be managed to prevent those traditional dimensions from becoming a liability – because traditional can easily equate to ‘out of touch’.

By associating with a sport that’s very contemporary, the sponsor can mitigate the risk of being seen as old-fashioned and ensure the positive dimensions or attributes of traditional come to the fore.

Or vice versa. One of our favourite sponsors has always been Investec. Under the leadership of Raymond van Niekirk, Investec associated itself with the Epsom Derby, now, ahem, the Cazoo Derby and ensured that Investec, despite being a high achieving South African newcomer in the ranks of asset management, was touched by the ceremony, the ritual and the social standing of one of the world’s greatest horse races. In a country that loves racing.

So the association that sponsorship offers is the ability to manage the sponsor’s brand, to upweight or imbue attributes of brand, simply and effectively.

Investec made the Epsom Derby their own

The challenge of building positive brand sentiment

Let’s compare the options.

To change people’s opinion about a brand is a major challenge. As Brand Director you will likely be overseeing all your brand touchpoints to ensure consistent messaging. And that’s great, but it’s essentially important hygiene. It won’t turn a tide of opinion.

New products and offerings can certainly shift hearts and minds, but they either have to be a killer product – iPhone comes immediately to mind – or they need to be consistently good enough for them to effect long-term change in perception. A hard task and a big ask of the organisation.

Brand advertising can communicate your brand with absolutely the precision you desire – but at the end of the day, it’s just an advert. A good story. And one campaign is not enough – once again, consistency is key, over time. Until audiences stop thinking of the campaign as a campaign – and begin to see it as the permanent face of the brand. This in itself requires mid to long-term commitment and continuity of approach. With the average tenure of a CMO lasting less than three years, and with each new CMO under pressure to make their mark, it’s easy to see why this approach – in practice – is also a challenge.

So sponsorship – although it can be hugely complex in the sense of the whole web of comms touchpoints it sets in motion, is – from another perspective – a plug and play option.

For this reason it’s the go-to discipline for any business requiring rapid brand-building – and it’s for good reason that each new bull category – dotcoms, gaming, Korean and Chinese Global brands, FX, fast food delivery and now crypto, turn to sponsorship for rapid gains.

Sponsorship’s ability to change perceptions can be leveraged in many ways – to launch or promote a product, to launch in a market, to target or access a hard to reach audience, to engage employees – and ultimately to drive sales. 

The relationship between brand and commercial success

Of course, brand shifts only have value if they ultimately translate to increased sales – and that is in many respects a tenet of marketing faith. That a strong brand – meaning a brand which clearly communicates the attributes which make it attractive to an audience – is a key ingredient in driving commercial success.

On the one hand, it’s common sense. If you feel positively about a brand, it’s highly likely you will show it commercial preference at some stage of your life.

On the other hand, it’s hard to prove, because it’s just one of many factors. The 5 P’s for example are each and everyone equally critical. 

And this in turn can make many sponsorships hard to measure, unless there is clear internal consensus within the leadership of the sponsor on the importance of brand.

But that’s another Sponsorship 101.


The 5 P's, courtesy of Infuse Five, strategic marketing