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Make a Lasting Impression: How Brands Can Create Authentic Sponsorships

Hal Conick

orange and black shirts and hats with 'your brand here' text

Most brands use sponsorships to win impressions, akin to a billboard or TV ad. But brands have a chance to create authentic sponsorships that engage consumers to win more than an easily forgotten impression.

At first glance, Danish pharmaceutical company Novo Nordisk seems an odd choice to sponsor a cycling team. Why would it trouble to court controversy and sponsor a pro cycling team amid the sport’s near-constant doping and drug scandals? The company’s backing could be perceived as a cynical joke.

But its sponsorship of American Team Novo Nordisk is an authentic relationship, according to T. Bettina Cornwell, a professor of marketing at the University of Oregon’s Lundquist College of Business. Cornwell met with executives at Novo Nordisk this summer and found that their sponsorship was forged with care: The company produces insulin therapies, and the cycling team it sponsors consists entirely of riders living with Type 1 diabetes.

“They’re inserting themselves into a conversation you would think would be explosive for them,” Cornwell says. “But actually, it’s quite good.”

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In her 2019 paper in the Journal of Advertising—titled “Less ‘Sponsorship As Advertising’ and More Sponsorship-Linked Marketing As Authentic Engagement”—Cornwell writes that brands have traditionally used sponsorships as they would billboards or TV ads, but sponsorships have the potential to give consumers an experience and win brand loyalty.

“In most markets, brands are no longer satisfied with logo placement as the central value of sponsorship and are no longer willing to accept prepackaged property asset bundles,” she writes in the paper. “At the same time, consumers are becoming wary of ubiquitous sponsorships and the commercialization of so many spheres of life.”

Perhaps worse than wary, consumers often ignore impressions-based sponsorship, according to Patrick Heffernan, senior vice president and director of strategic planning at branding company Jack Morton Worldwide. “You may notice [the sponsorship] the first time, but unless you can answer the question, ‘Why is the brand there and what value do they bring?’ … those impressions fade away instantly.”

IEG’s 2018 sponsorship report found that $24.2 billion was spent on sponsorship in North America alone, with spending increasing to $65.8 billion across the entire world. That’s a significant amount of money being spent to allow impressions to fade.

Create Authentic Links

The need for authentic sponsorships was showcased in a 2014 paper—titled “Corporate sponsorship as an image platform: understanding the roles of relationship fit and sponsor–sponsee similarity”—written by Cornwell and co-author Ravi Pappu, a marketing professor at the University of Queensland. They examined how consumers feel about ill-fitting sponsorship deals, specifically looking at how the Red Cross would be perceived if it took a sponsorship from a fast-food chain that consumers perceive as healthy (Subway) versus one considered unhealthy (KFC).

Cornwell says that when a sponsorship relationship is seen as authentic, it’s helpful to both brands’ reputations. But when the sponsorship is seen as inauthentic, the relationship and perhaps reputation can be tarnished. In the 2014 study, participants saw a potential relationship between KFC and the Red Cross as inauthentic. As one person quoted in the study said, “It’s quite ironic that the Red Cross is about saving lives and KFC is in the fast food industry, which is the cause of a lot of health issues.”

Perception of the relationship may be the most important aspect of a sponsorship, Heffernan says. Another pair of food companies may be the best example, he says, as Coca-Cola and McDonald’s each had different levels of success in sponsoring the Olympic Games.

Coca-Cola has sponsored the Olympics since 1928. Although the producer of sugar-packed soda seems at odds with an event built on peak athleticism, the company was able to create an authentic, long-lasting link to the Olympics brand. Heffernan says Coca-Cola has thrived by billing itself as a drink that can break down barriers and be shared among people, even competitors from distant lands.

McDonald’s, on the other hand, recently ended its sponsorship of the Olympics after 40 years. “They could never crack that code,” Heffernan says. “And it came down to connecting it back with brand purpose.”

To succeed, Heffernan says that brands must first understand why they’re sponsors, then flip the question and answer it from the consumer’s point of view: What value will the consumer get from this sponsorship? If the answer is simply to know the brand’s name, the impression will fade quickly.

Engage the People

Cornwell writes that there needs to be a satisfying, emotional bond for both the sponsor and sponsee. But that bond must be forged by more than frequency of interaction—brands must engage consumers in an experience.

Cornwell cited Levi’s Stadium, home of the San Francisco 49ers. The stadium features a Levi’s retail shop, a Levi’s branded “501 Club” party room and regular involvement from the Levi’s marketing team to engage with fans.

Successful sponsorships are set apart by what Heffernan calls “activate before you negotiate.” Before brands sign a sponsorship agreement, he says that they must focus on what purpose the brand will communicate to audiences, and how.

“You can push for different types of assets if you’ve thought it through,” Heffernan says. “You can push for more content opportunities, if that’s important to how you activate. A lot of brands take what’s initially packaged and get it out there, which is usually traditional name-generating, impression-based assets—signage in the outfield—versus the opportunity to host a kid’s clinic when the team is away.”

Measure the Engagement

When sponsorships are measured, Cornwell says that it’s often for exposure, emblematic of the classic sponsorship-as-advertising model. Even brands measuring attitude change and ROI are basing their metrics more on the advertising model than engagement, Cornwell says, as ROI and attitude don’t measure the experience of the consumer.

Cornwell suggests that brands measure relationship authenticity: Here’s what they think about us right now, here’s what happened in the first year, is the relationship authentic?

Similarly, Cornwell says that brands can measure the return on objectives and purpose of a sponsorship. This means that brands must know, from the start of the sponsorship, its theme and what it wants to communicate.

“I have to think about what characteristics our brand has and what characteristics [the sponsee] has and how combining them might have genuine potential for engagement,” she says. “And if I don’t have that part, I probably shouldn’t go forward. Once I have that, even if I’m a lesser-known brand or I haven’t done anything like this before, then the combination should speak to people.”

From here, the brand can set an objective. Is the aim for more people to know about the brand? More people taking a specific action? People changing their attitudes on a topic? “I can measure my before and after on those points of awareness or attitudes,” Cornwell says.

Extra Points

Avoid faraway sponsorships: Cornwell says that sponsorships by brands that are located far away from a sponsee can feel distant and inauthentic to consumers. If you’re a brand looking at a faraway sponsorship, Cornwell says that you should tell a story explaining that your support is about more than just advertising.

Sometimes impressions matter: Heffernan says that although it’s best to get impressions through less expensive means than sponsorships, there are opportunities where a sponsorship could work well. A large Chinese company coming to the U.S., for example, may successfully win a lot of public awareness through a well-placed sponsorship. “But that’s the minority,” he says.

Smaller sponsorships must still engage: Even if you’re a local or regional corporation sponsoring a small event, such as a 5K run or a mid-tier golf event, you must still engage consumers. At a run, for example, Cornwell says that brands should have a place for runners to meet and get refreshments after they finish. At a golf event, brands can open a pop-up shop or restaurant. “It’s more about meeting people in the community or giving back,” she says.

Hal Conick is a freelance writer for the AMA’s magazines and e-newsletters. He can be reached at halconick@gmail.com or on Twitter at @HalConick.