Sponsorship strategy and brand fit

sponsorship strategy and brand fir

The 4th post in our series on the psychology of sponsorship looks at sponsorship strategy and brand fit – and specifically to answer four questions.

  • What is brand fit?
  • How is congruence relevant to sponsorship strategy?
  • What influences our sense of brand fit?
  • How can I improve my sponsorship brand fit?

So let’s jump in.

What is brand fit?

Brand fit refers to the perceived appropriateness of the partnership between a sponsor and a rights-holder. When a brand fit is good, the relationship feels natural, to be expected, intuitively right. When the brand fit is weak, the relationship feels strange, awkward or surprising.

Endemic sponsorships ie sponsorships by businesses which come from an industry which is closely related to the rights-holder, are obvious examples of good fit. Quiksilver, RipCurl and Billabong are absolutely at home with surfing, just as Burton is with snowboarding. The entire category of beer fits well with football. Shell and Ferrari or Castrol and Renault.

But Castrol and the FIFA World Cup? Shell and the Science Museum. Or Cazoo and Everton – they just don’t feel immediately convincing or ‘right’…

The term that’s used in research to describe the level of brand fit is congruence. Is a sponsorship perceived as congruent – or incongruent?

How is congruence relevant to sponsorship strategy?

Both academic research and professional experience consistently indicate that congruence is a key factor in sponsorship’s ability to influence perception of the sponsor.

Congruence was originally studied in the context of its impact on a person’s ability to concentrate, but subsequent studies explored the effect of congruence and incongruence in relation to memory recall and attitude formation. The theory goes that, when there is congruence between two things, they are more likely to be associated in a person’s memory and they fit more easily into our existing mental schemas or structures – our habitual way of seeing the world.

Furthermore. when two things lack congruence, they’re likely to provoke cognitive dissonance, a theory developed by social psychologist Leon Festinger in the 1950’s.

Cognitive dissonance arises when the mind has to reconcile two inconsistent beliefs, situations or positions. Cognitive dissonance is experienced as psychologically uncomfortable – you know the feeling something just doesn’t make obvious sense. We’re almost compelled to avoid or reduce that dissonance to achieve consonance, or consistency.

If you experience a sponsorship as dissonant, you’re likely to do one of two things : try to puzzle out the reason for the sponsorship, the Why? Or dismiss it as an irritation. The first of these brings some benefit, if we’re honest enough to anticipate the reaction and prepared to take advantage of it : it attracts attention. But if the reason’s not clear, the prognosis is not good. We dealt with what we do with the Why? in an earlier post.

Congruence on the other hand reduces mental barriers and offers a more receptive mind for activation.

So brand fit is extremely relevant to sponsorship strategy because it influences outcomes – and is an important consideration in both selection and activation

What influences our sense of brand fit?

A number of factors:

  • a natural sense of connection – as above, where the sponsor has an obvious connection to the audience or the activity
  • sponsor credibility
  • strong product integration, where products are seen to play a genuinely useful role in supporting the team, event, rights-holder
  • shared locality : when a sponsor is from the same community, we almost automatically assume the sponsorship is to support the community; sponsors from the other side of the world on the other hand create suspicion
  • the age of the sponsorship: although old sponsorships have to work hard to retain their emotional relevance, we’re cautious about new, unproven sponsorships


The first two of these should be influencing property selection and negotiation in the first place.  But while there’s not much flexibility with the second two bullets, and even where none of these exist, it’s possible to create a strong sense of fit.

How can I improve my sponsorship brand fit?

So, beyond strong product integration, here’s the checklist:

  1. Address the Why? Make it really clear, don’t reduce it to the announcement release but thread it constantly across your comms and activations. And make it genuine
  2. Tune into the audience. There are more and more great examples of brands doing this and looking for the same level of insight they would expect for their media comms. Heineken is a great example of understanding and exploring the intersection of brand, sponsorship and audience. This doesn’t just apply to activation but to language, tone of voice, imagery, every dimension really.
  3. Be confident : let Coca-Cola be your inspiration. Coca-Cola, let’s face it, has little connection with football once you’re past the age of around 12; and the only connection with the Olympics is its own heritage. And yet. Coke goes big on point 2 above and asserts its position with confidence. It never quite shakes off the lack of natural connection but we absolutely forgive it because it always adds pop to the part.

The bottom line is that brand fit should be and remain a real focus for sponsors at every stage of the sponsorship lifecycle and as such should be considered a key component of sponsorship strategy.