The Sinek Qua Non of sponsorship


The third post in our theme of the Psychology of Sponsorship explores how sponsorship narrative can be strengthened by understanding the nature of psychological attribution.


Simon Sinek’s ‘Why?’ framing of business purpose reminds us nicely of a simple psychological truth : we all seek meaning, we’re meaning-makers. We make meaning of everything – it’s the human condition.

Just as our ancestors looked to explain the vagaries of fate or the workings of the human heart with divinity or witchcraft, so we look for reasons – for everything. We did he do that? Why didn’t that business do that? Everywhere we look, we’re surrounded by Whys.

So this doesn’t just play out at the level of brand purpose, it plays out in sponsorship and every visible corporate behaviour.

We partly covered this back with our 2015 post, We❤️storytelling, which connected sponsorship narratives to Gestalt psychology. Gestalt teaches us that the mind has an innate tendency to make sense of what it perceives – and that tendency leads us to fill in the gaps in what we see, hear and know with educated guesses.

So any ‘sponsorship narrative needs to explain how – and why – the relationship came to be, what brought these two characters together, what was the attraction, or the driver, and what were the consequences – what emerges from the partnership, and how it all ends. Building on storytelling practice, one would say: a compelling beginning, a point of tension and a resolution.’

This means going way beyond the typical, bullish but paper-thin rationales offered for starting – and stopping – a sponsorship. Because if we don’t, the audience will make its own sense of what’s happening – with the information at their disposal. And a large part of your sponsorship impact hangs on your audience’s attribution – attribution being the psychological term which deals with how individuals perceive the causes of everyday experience.

Internally or externally driven?

In his 1958 book, “The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations,” Fritz Heider, whom we met in another post on how sponsorship works, distinguished between external and internal attributions. External attributions are those blamed on external circumstance, while internal attributions are blamed on individual characteristics and traits.

So far, so good – except that we suffer from what’s known as fundamental attribution error.

When it comes to analysing the behaviour of other people, we tend to attribute causes to internal factors ie personality characteristics and ignore or minimize external variables. Even though situational variables are very likely present, we automatically attribute the cause to internal characteristics.

In an organisational context (and for the individual – organisational connection, see here), this means we are most likely to attribute behaviours and actions to organisational personality and volition. Is this organisation behaving well – or badly? Our article on the FT’s coverage of the end of McDonald’s TOP Partnership is a clear illustration of this. Rather than look at the larger context of McDonald’s commercial performance and strategic priorities, the journalist chose to explain their departure by imagining a beleaguered IOC.

The test of authenticity

The next – and critical – point is this. When we attribute actions to internal volition, according to Edward Jones and Keith Davis’ correspondent inference theory, people make their conclusions by reviewing the context of behavior. And the three main factors are : is the action freely chosen or obligated, is it unexpected or habitual, and how significant is the effect of the action?

(The theory to some extent this cuts across the internal / external distinction, because an obligation is always imposed from outside – but clearly an internal dimension exists, as we always have a choice; and research into the perception of CSR makes it clear that consumers readily identify corporate behaviour as self-serving when it’s obligated by circumstance but claimed as altruistic.)

The three factors are easy enough to understand : all three ultimately influence audience perceptions of genuine commitment and authenticity, the defining value of this age.

And these three factors provide a useful matrix for assessing the attribution of sponsorship.

The closer to the right hand side of the scale, the more likely your audience is to see your sponsorship as self-serving; and the lower potential for positive impact on brand perception.

There are some great examples emerging in recent years – Salesforce’s partnership with F1 and most recently Deloitte’s partnership with the IOC. Both embed business purpose within the structure of the partnership and with that a macro sponsorship narrative and a host of micro narratives linked to partnership successes.

If partnership parameters are already structured, step back and consider the bigger picture for the remaining term. Difficult in practice but, to return to Gestalt, and to our earlier post, every figure needs a ground!

Returning to sponsorship narrative, it also provides a framework to mitigate negative perception.

Communication can reinforce the authenticity of your sponsorship by directly addressing these three drivers of attribution – but ideally communications will tell a fuller story, to bring to life the underlying Why – authentically. And here the simple framework of storytelling is perhaps even more useful.

The framework? Very simple: the beginning, middle and end of the traditional narrative arc. From a western storytelling perspective, the middle stage offers tension – will the issue / challenge / problem be successfully resolved. Will the partnership succeed in its objectives. Optimally, the narrative arc will be embedded within the strategy itself.

Hopefully, all this theory will chime with your personal experience. The more closely it chimes, the better. Good psychological theory isn’t about the theory, it’s about providing the most accurate and therefore most useful map to reality.