The power of broadcast sponsorship

sponsorship rocks bw blog

Sponsorship Rocks

Not that we spend all Christmas watching TV – far from it. But a post on broadcast sponsorship does still seem somehow more fitting at this time of the year.

We used to see broadcast sponsorship mainly as a media buy – but that changed with the innovation of creative bumpers branding from the likes of Carphone Warehouse. For us, this simple creative build changed it into something more subtle and altogether more engaging. A study by UK broadcaster Channel 4 throws light on the detail of this engagement.

Channel 4, UK

In the UK, Channel 4 and ITV have always been the leading proponents of broadcast sponsorship and Sponsorship Rocks is the name of a major study released by Channel 4 in 2019. C4 claimed that Sponsorship Rocks was the most comprehensive study into the effectiveness of TV sponsorship ever conducted – and with over 250 waves of research aggregated in the macro study, they’re probably right.

Channel 4 estimated it had spent around £2.5m on research into individual sponsorships, data which it decided to aggregate into the mother of all databanks.

The report is fascinating – both in its own right but also in comparison with our understanding of traditional sponsorship. For us, it permanently shifted our perception of broadcast. 

There were four parts to the research :

  • 107 studies, with 257 waves of quant, speaking to 80000+ respondents
  • digital chat sessions, with participants watching a sponsored Channel 4 programme ‘live’ in their own homes on their own TV and discussing what they thought with other viewers and a moderator via webcam and live text chat. They had no idea the focus was sponsorship, so it allowed C4 to really understand the language people use when talking about sponsorship.
  • an ‘immersive supergroup’, a large focus group to better understand the relationships with sponsorship
  • explicit and implicit research to establish if values were being transmitted between the sponsored programme and the sponsoring brand , conducted across 1600 viewers of specific C4 programmes (Test) and C4 viewers who didn’t watch specific programme (Control) 

The findings

The macro study is not the most interesting, predictably positive in its reporting of brand impact. The questions are typically cognitive quant, self-reported changes to audience perception. The findings suggest broad uplift across all brand metrics – but regular readers will know that we’d broadly discount these findings. It felt hardly surprising, coming from the Channel 4 sales team. After all, the aim of the document is to sell sponsorship.

More believably, almost 80% of the sample agreed that they accept sponsorship as part of the TV experience, showing a high level of normalisation for the experience compared to even a decade ago. Viewers reported that sponsors feels like part of the intro to the programme,  embedded within the TV landscape as a ‘culture cue’ to remind viewers that the show’s about to start. In fact 91% thought that sponsorship is the future of advertising.

The C4 team reported that consumers perceive sponsorships to be an expensive form of advertising, given the imagined spending commitment across a long run of a series or strand. As a result, sponsorships are seen by audiences to demonstrate ‘a big commitment both to the programme and to them’. It’s consistent that audiences also feel that brands who sponsor content are more premium. 

This is interesting in the context of growing cynicism around traditional sponsorship. Even though the report is now three years old, it suggests we’re so used to a mediated world that we accept broadcast as an equivalent to real-life experience.

Surprisingly personal

A big curiosity- for us at least – is the level of intimacy in the perceived relationship. As the sponsorship is experienced at home, and sponsors are allowed to create a clear presence inside the viewer’s home, the relationship is described as very personal. Audiences talked of viewers and brand sharing a favourite show, and sponsors are seen as partnering the audience as much as the programme. As a result, according to C4 findings, sponsors appear to enjoy high levels of trust.

Given the impact of the environment on the viewing experience, we would anticipate trust levels for broadcast sponsors to exceed traditional sponsors. Traditional sponsorship aligns brands with organisations and infrastructure – a level removed from the intimacy of TV consumption. The report gives a clear sense that broadcast sponsors really have the opportunity to become one of the family – an intimacy which traditional sponsors struggle to achieve.

The C4 team choose to draw the conclusion that ‘sponsorship has a much narrower margin of risk compared to a lot of marketing communication. It a has high inherent value that means a lot of the work is done by just being a sponsor.’ It’s a novel argument and not in general in line with our experience. But in the specific instance of broadcast sponsorship, it’s a feasible assertion. In this context, ‘proudly sponsored by’ appears to have a value that’s lost in traditional sponsorship.

On a practical level, clear branding – visual and sonic is highlighted as essential. Broadcast sponsors benefit from the equivalent of title sponsorship, of course, driving greater salience.

The ease and value of alignment

It was also good to see alignment – a sense of associative coherence in Kahneman’s terms – touched on; with C4 tracking more positive brand sentiment against alignment. And practically, C4 found that it’s not necessary to over-engineer alignment: a sense of alignment can be encouraged in the creative execution, in the product, in the target audience, even in the show timing even. The barrier to alignment and congruence is really quite low.

But according to the findings, the level of alignment does affect reported purchase intent. The stronger the alignment, the higher the proportion of people saying they intend to purchase. 

The research also tested value transfer – to use the old term, or emotional association – although the report conflates brand association with the impact of media context on perception. 

Either ways, C4 found that people who had been exposed to programming had stronger associations with relevant brand attributes, and this was also stronger when brand alignment was closer. Attributes that had a high cross over between the brand and the programme performed better. Across campaigns, there was an average uplift on brand attributes of one third across all attributes tested.

17% of respondents found Foster's a funny beer.

The final point of interest is about repeat viewing. We’re all wary of wallpaper branding and what’s in effect Daniel Berlyne‘s research finding – that over-exposure can lead to boredom. But the C4 study reports views this as a bit of a red herring. They found that with higher levels of viewer ‘wear out’, awareness is still higher (which you would expect) and more likely to purchase. 


It was disappointing that no bandwidth was given to multi screen viewing – or the impact of viewing on mobile or tablet, which will inevitably impact the viewing experience.

It’s also a shame not to see some exploration of the impact of creative versus more static idents. We think it was Carphone Warehouse who innovated with variations and tone of voice – but there have been many memorable executions since then.

Broadcast - powerful intrinsics

In terms of sponsorship theory, one might expect a diluted response to broadcast sponsorship as it’s clearly closer to advertising than sponsorship – but C4’s study contradict that position quite compellingly.

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