We were reviewing our search performance over Christmas (as you do) and were shocked to rank low against the term sponsorship strategy. Which is criminal as Redmandarin was the sponsorship industry’s first strategy consultancy – and even now is one of a handful (or fewer) of agencies globally which specialise in strategy.
But there’s 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.
‘How to go about sponsorship’ is actually a huge question because it enquires into the fundamentals of the psychological process of sponsorship – namely the change of sentiment it aims to generate in target audiences. But the question here is simply: what is sponsorship strategy, and good strategy in particular? And that begins with the subtle 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:
The level of priority
Setting goals and priorities is a key part of strategy creation, because resources need to be mobilised to achieve the goals. There is a smart sequencing at play where timely actions will accelerate progress – and real added value in aligning the use of resource and a shared understanding that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
Sponsorship strategy is all about prioritisation. Creating priority objectives, messaging, audience targeting, timing. As with many creative disciplines, priorities give definition, focus and single-mindedness
The order of importance
If an objective has strategic importance, it is of a higher order priority for the organisation or individual and represents a significant advancement.
For us, sponsorship can really excel at building lower and upper funnel metrics. From awareness and engagement to sales. It can transform positioning, drive reappraisal and turbo charge relevance. When attached to a strategic objective, it is an impressive discipline.
The scale of the challenge
A plan provides a route map to get something done. There may be variables and dependencies, but generally speaking, the path is clear. A strategy is required when the path is unclear and there is some degree of emergence.
The decision to sponsor for the first time, for example, is fraught with difficulty: what to sponsor, how to ensure ROI, how much to invest, how to cut through, are all fundamental questions that can only be answered with careful analysis, modelling, diligence and experience.
The competitive context
Not all, but many areas of strategy exist in a competitive context. Strategy is required to win, to succeed, not just to execute. Richard P Rumelt wrote in 2011 that three important aspects of strategy include ‘premeditation, the anticipation of others’ behavior, and the purposeful design of coordinated actions’.
Sponsorship takes place in many competitive contexts : there is general brand noise from category competitors, there are likely to be category competitors within the platform (of football, for example) and there is TOM competition from the other sponsors – so sponsorship strategy needs to anticipate how the brand will generate and retain salience for at least three years.
For Redmandarin, sponsorship strategy is less about planning – and more about building competitive advantage. How do we create a winning strategy? And that in itself begins with outcomes.
Max McKeown’s The Strategy Book opens : “Strategy is about shaping the future”. 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.
And maybe that’s the inverse definition of a plan : a strategy with too many objectives.
Click here for some thoughts on Sponsorship Portfolio Strategy.