The psychology of sponsorship engagement

faces bw blog psych
The Psychology of Sponsorship #2

So a second post on the theme of the psychology of sponsorship, this time looking at the factors which influence sponsorship engagement, and how we build relationship with an audience. And once again it’s a question of marrying academic research and theory with the experience of sponsorship practice and an overlay of our own applied psychological insight, which we call Brand Psychotherapy.

Sponsorship industry practitioners always know before academics many of the factors that mediate the impact of a sponsorship, for better or worse – but without the framework for understanding which research builds, it’s all too easy for practitioner experience to lack a coherent foundation.

As an academic, T Bettina Cornwell is something of an exception. Her studies are direclty relevant to practitioners and in the context of this article, her book ‘Sponsorship in Marketing’ looks at many useful concepts under the umbrella of Mental Processing : the prominence heuristic, attribution of theory, reciprocity, identification, congruence and articulation. We believe however that these all make more sense inside the psychological framework of relationship.

The global metaphor

Relationship has a greater role to play in sponsorship than in any other form of marketing communication. Why is that? Because the intrinsic nature of sponsorship depends on and leverages the value of a relationship between the individual and the sponsorship property to insert the sponsor into that relationship. Sponsorship assumes and attempts to take advantage of prior existing and strong relationships to generate engagement.

In terms of psychology, we’re in the territory of friendship formation and maintenance and there are many learnings which are relevant to our application of sponsorship.

But our starting point is not friendship but anthropomorphism, the practice of attributing human emotions and motives to … just about anything really. Stewart Guthrie, in his fascinating book, Faces in the Clouds, argues that anthropormorphism is a universal human trait, from the fact that religions everywhere have understood deities as humanlike. Our own humanity obliges us to explain the world in human terms because, it’s more or less how we see the world, a global metaphor.

The importance of relationship is hardwired into sponsorship

Although we might not consciously choose to describe a Club, sponsor or brand in human terms, and although Byron Sharp  dismisses attempts to personify brands as pure marketing fancy, it’s logical that we look for the same quality of relationship from a business or organisation as we do from a person. The universal tendency to see the world in human terms means that we judge all contact and relationship against a human benchmark.

So we’re looking at the psychological framework of friendship formation to throw light on and beyond Cornwell’s mental processes. If we look at the theories around friendship formation, there are many similarities which offer insight into sponsorship engagement.

Theories of friendship

Theories of friendship per se fall broadly into four categories: reinforcement, which maintain that we like people who reward us or whom we associate with rewards. Social exchange theory predicates friendship on our satisfaction with the level of reward we generate from a relationship, especially as compared to the reward our friend is receiving. Cognitive consistency argues that we are most attracted to people whose values and attitudes are consistent with our own; while developmental theories view friendship as a series of phases.

These theories attempt to explain why we make friends – but of course illuminate some of the fundamental building blocks of sponsorship engagement : reward, reciprocity and value alignment, each of which will resonate with the practitioner but also with rightsholders. How do we reward, do our values align with our audience and most importantly in this commercial era of sport : are we able to understand our audience’s view of reciprocity, and their perspective of fair exchange?

The best engagements reflect the value exchange needed to keep the relationship healthy.

Environmental factors and frequency of exposure of course play a major role in determining friendships – accessibility. It’s an obvious point but an environment which brings us into regular contact with a person is more conducive to friendship starting – and of course, this a key component of sponsorship, to meet consumers at places of their choosing.

It's not just about winning, it's how you win
Sports certainly know that nothing succeeds like success

Physical attractiveness is known to play a role in both romantic and non-romantic friendships. The jury’s out on why, split 50/50. 

One line of thought is that we’re keen to identify with the positive feelings that attractiveness creates in others, akin to the social benefits of association with success and the halo it confers. No immediate learning there.

But the other line is that our attraction is based on the enhanced social skills that physical attractiveness generally brings – social skills being another key influence of friendship selection. Put simply, awkward or strange behaviour, missing social cues, poor body language and inability to follow social norms, all make us less likeable.

As a sponsor or rightsholder, do my communications conform with good social practice? This is less about grammar and syntax and more about conversational flow, content and responsiveness: am I interesting and interested, is my sponsorship engaging and engaged? 

In an age when consumer engagement is key, Dale Carnegie’s 1936 quote is worth remembering: ‘You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you’.

And values of course

Similarity is another strong determinant of friendship. 

Education, religion, family background, social status, attitudes have all been shown to facilitate friendship formation, as they remove barriers and risk and provide a basis for connection. Over time, external similarities are less important and value alignment comes to dominate. And again, sponsorship provides a common space, a ‘social object’ where sponsor and consumer can build a relationship – while, over time, the values of the sponsor, as brought to life in their relationship – will influence the longevity of sponsorship engagement.

These factors of friendship formation cover off most of Bettina’s. For the rest, congruence. attribution and articulation – which we would retitle ‘meaning’ are covered in two other linked blogs. The prominence heuristic is a bias which we will cover in another post.

Each of the areas covered in this post bears much deeper exploration. For us of course the joy of client work is in offering opportunities to explore the best application of psychology. 

Our basic premise and working hypothesis is that any form of communication which respects and reflects best practice social skills will drive the strongest and most sustainable ‘fan’ relationships. These skills aren’t just reflected in copy but in every dimension of activation planning and execution. In reality, this doesn’t represent a re-write of existing practice – but a framework to ensure coherent application and, ultimately, sponsorship engagement.