Sponsorship, branding and Byron’s big mistake

brand and sponsorship blog bw

Please read this if you’re interested in how sponsorship changes brand perception.. This post wraps up a number of loose ends – so goes on a bit, sorry.

Following a recent podcast, Ian Thompson, a sponsorship measurement expert, scoffed in a blog at the idea of brand value transfer – namely, that the values of a sponsorship rub off on the sponsor.

Now the thought that value transfer – hate the phrase – isn’t a central deliverable of sponsorship is really a bit gobsmacking, but over a coffee we came to realise we were actually both pretty much in the same space. Ian’s deeper point was to highlight the care we need to take with our language. For sure : sponsorship does not guarantee ‘value transfer’. 

Ian’s post referenced Byron Sharp, ‘How Brands Grow’ and the claim that ‘largely, communications do not imbue brands with special values’. Sharp questions the idea of seeking to imbue brands with specific values and attributes via communications and claims that these are more likely formed via experience.

But as much as ‘How brands grow’ was a much-needed reset for much marketing practice, it clearly wasn’t written for the sponsorship industry. (Or brand management!) This post unpacks the language around ‘value transfer’ and more broadly the area of brand perception.


Byron Sharp talks about memory structures and mental availability but doesn’t – in the book – define either. Here‘s a great article on brand memory structures by Elena Zeff of Brigade Branding from the all-important branding perspective, which is where most of Byron’s focus appears to be. 

In case you don’t want to read the article just now, the broader point is that memories are associative. We don’t neatly file a logo memory in the logo file or jingle in the jingle file. So we may remember a logo because of sheer familiarity – but also because of vivid memories of the first time we saw it. Or because it reminds us of another logo. Or your daughter’s painting. Or the shape of two trees in your garden. The associational network of memories is unfathomably rich and complex. One of the few things we do know about it is that memories are often associated with emotions.

There is no question that sponsorship can make a meaningful and positive contribution to building memory structures. We’ve already quoted Steven Keith in our post on Byron Sharp and Sponsorship :  ‘When you talk to Canadians about what they know about Petro-Canada, 99% know the brand, 95% know we’re an oil and gas company – and 50 or 60% know we sponsor the Olympic team. And quite honestly, they don’t know really anything else’. For Petro-Canada, its sponsorship didn’t need to communicate any special attributes – because it was a special attribute.

To make the point again, memory structures don’t follow any linear logic – each memory is simply a node of associations. So associations with popular ‘social objects’ or with areas of interest which are closely linked to our own sense of identity are hugely important, providing both an anchor and a bookmark.

Especially when you spill it on your trousers
Living the Leaf, as they put it now.


The direct experience of product – and service – is, Byron’s point, inarguably a primary source of brand perception. Our direct experience of a product is clearly critical. It can win us over or put us off a product for the rest of our lives.

But many products, like their images, struggle to differentiate themselves. They do the job. They’re good enough. An orange juice is very often just an orange juice. Insurance policies rarely excite people. Most banking services are a greater source of annoyance than pleasure. As Byron himself writes, physical availability – convenience in other words – often reigns supreme. So in age when availability – thanks to Amazon, Ocado, Deliveroo and their peers – is less of an issue, there is a clear role for strong and positive brand associations to build mental availability.

‘My mum never let me drink it because it was in the news that a girl turned yellow. That’s true, right?’


Sponsors most certainly do change consumer perceptions through sponsorship. We’ve seen that in nearly ever single piece of evaluation we’ve ever seen. Just not always in the ways you expect.


The whole area of values is poorly defined. Byron is not actually a brand person. The values that organisations claim for themselves are frequently not based in how their brands are seen by their consumers and the public. Most published brand values describe an image of how they want, or think they need to be seen, their idealised self-image in other words.

The majority of large brands companies assign values to themselves and measure the distance in consumer perception. They will often even have a separate set of internal values which they want employees to live up to. And sports rights holders are no different. Ian uses the Olympics as his example – doubting that consumers would jump to excellence, respect or friendship as the dominant values – and he’s right.

But that is not the same as saying that brands do not have attributes or that these can’t be communicated.

Vodafone values - speed, if only


Brands often have dominant characteristics which aren’t even acknowledged as values by the people in charge. Impressive, for example. Premium. Leading. Nationality. Prominence. And most important of all, Contemporary and Relevant. But equally Low quality, Stingy, Boring, Pompous, Remote, Self-centred or self-serving.


Consumers may not have a perfectly coherent mental image of a brand – and especially not one that conforms with that brand’s Brand ID or positioning. But they will have associations because you simply can’t think of a brand in the abstract. Every word and every brand conjures up associations. That is how our memory works. These will range from fragmented to coherent, based on any memorable interaction with the brand. It’s also an innate tendency to anthropomorphise – so our associations will shape themselves around human characteristics.

Anyone in marketing knows that brand attributes like Old-fashioned, Too big to care, Pompous, Condescending and Boring, let alone Shoddy have a negative impact on sales. Equally, Innovative, Contemporary, Premium, Powerful and Exciting are attributes which have a positive impact on sales.

You could be forgiven for thinking Scottish might be an attribute of BoS


Perceptions of sponsors most certainly are changed by the dominant characteristics of the sport/ event/ personality/ sponsored thing. We saw that in the Channel 4 report on broadcast sponsorship, we’ve seen it in literally hundreds of evaluation reports. These are the values of the sponsorship, as perceived by consumers – but they might not be the values the rightsholder claims.

Even though the IOC’s original values emerged directly out of research into consumer perceptions, few consumers would identify excellence, respect and friendship as values of the Olympic Games.  One might, as Ian points out, consider the IOC as an organisation unethical or corrupt – but that perception does not impact perceptions of the Games. The values most commonly associated with the Games are – from our client experience – as closer to global, celebration, optimism, hope – and, increasingly, innovation. Overwhelmingly positive. And this positivity transfers to brands.

The, er, beacon of light


In the same way that product experience is a primary factor in brand perception, the direct experience of a sponsorship is powerful, because it’s experiential – and experience has the potential to strengthen many dimensions of the associative network, including emotion. The importance of emotion covered more here.

That is the role of activation which in sponsorship has a very different meaning to that assigned to it by Binet and Field. Activation in sponsorship is any activity intended to engage target audiences with the sponsorship. They are not solely sales-related. In fact, the majority of sponsorship activation is brand activation, intended to raise awareness of and engagement with the sponsorship. Sponsorship without activation is mainly logo exposure – the bad old days of sponsorship practice.

This is NOT a sales activation


It’s obviously possible to manage the associations between a sponsor and a sponsorship – that’s the job of the sponsorship industry, after all. The associations created by the sponsorship – by its design, structure and communication – can and should be managed to change perceptions of the attributes of the brand. Sponsorship excels at communicating contemporary and premium. This requires agencies to be grounded in the reality of the target audience and not succumb to the hype and BS of both rightsholders and sponsors.


Nobody, including Byron Sharp, understands the full impact of brand perception on purchase decisions. And no metric reliably provides a projection of purchase probability. Brand is one factor amongst many, and nearly always an added-value, all things being equal, determinant. But we do have enough clues, indicators and hunches to craft brand communications better or worse.

In summary, while we agree with the principle’s of  Byron Sharp’s new paradigm for marketing, and get probably as frustrated as he does with arcane positioning or idealised value sets we would disagree with Byron Sharp on two main points:

  • mental availability goes way beyond recall of the logo and the physical characteristics of product, and incorporates any associative hooks to memory – and sponsorship can be a powerful hook
  • it is absolutely possible to imbue brands with special value through communications activity – and here sponsorship excels : the challenge is simply to understand those values clearly from the perspective of a consumer operating largely in System One.  ie don’t overthink it!
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