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There was a time when the health of the sponsorship industry seemed to track the health of the wider economy. But these days sponsorship seems to thrive whatever the corporate trends. Andy Fry reports.
So far in 2016, for example, we have seen English Premier League football club Chelsea agree a £60 million a year kit deal with Nike, and La Liga giant Barcelona secure £120 million a year from the same source. At time of writing, Barcelona was also poised to sign a second massive deal with either Qatar Airways or Amazon.
Elsewhere, Heineken signed up as a global sponsor of Formula 1 and Vodafone unveiled a four-year, €15 million partnership with the Irish Rugby Football Union. True, Royal Bank Of Scotland has decided to end its 13-year alliance with rugby union’s Six Nations, but there’s no question blue-chip brands will be queuing up to take RBS’s place from next year – presumably at an increased fee.
Coming up soon is the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio – which has also been the subject of great sponsorship interest. Despite the unfortunate impact on the event of the Zika virus, Rio has still generated a billion dollars plus worth of sponsorship rights fees, to which must be added the cost of activation and the huge array of ambush marketing activities that will take place this summer.
The broadcast sponsorship business also continues to boom, with motoring brands among the biggest spenders. Since the end of 2015, there have been major deals involving Suzuki (ITV’s Ant & Dec show), Peugeot (ITV’s Six Nations coverage) and Nissan, which signed a wide-ranging three-year deal with Sky Media, which gives it access to Sky Sports’ EPL broadcast coverage. Other notable deals saw Camelot sign a £6 million partnership with ITV’s Britain’s Got Talent and Volvic unveil a seven-figure deal with Channel 4, supporting a range of shows such as The Island, Eden, The Goldbergs and 2 Broke Girls. Allianz also joined forces with C4 in support of its Rio 2016 Paralympics coverage.
The range of brands involved in sponsorship echoes the pattern we have seen in recent years at the UK Sponsorship Awards. In 2015, the event’s biggest year since London 2012 sent the sponsorship industry wild, winning entries came from sectors including financial services (AIG, Barclays, RBS), automotive (Nissan, Jaguar, Lexus, Volvo), retail/fmcg (M&S, Aunt Bessie’s), mobile (O2, Samsung), drinks (Desperados), energy (SSE), fast food (Domino’s, McDonald’s), luxury (Swarovski, TUMI), hotels (Marriott), courier (DHL) and sportswear (Under Armour).
What was evident in many of those entries was the following. Firstly, that sponsorship’s strength as a medium is largely down to its ability to engage with audiences. In an era when it is easy to avoid, ignore or miss commercial messaging, sponsorship is the means by which brands can connect and interact with audiences. It’s a counterweight to messages that interrupt or annoy.
Secondly, that sponsorship’s versatility means it never goes out of fashion. When brands talk about utilising digital channels or creating content or working with communities or partnering talent, they invariably turn to sponsorship to make it real. Advertising, for so long perceived as a higher form than sponsorship, now turns out to be one manifestation of it.
Thirdly, the sponsorship cloth can be cut to suit any brand or budget. Although we tend to measure the success of the medium by its headline deals, companies that are priced out of the premium properties usually find another way – whether it be arts, education, CSR, music or one of the many second tier sports. What better example of this than The Royal Navy’s Supersubs strategy, a 2015 UKSA winner built around a partnership with talkSPORT. Based on the idea that substitutes can have a major impact on a game of football, this tightly targeted campaign showed that the right story in the right medium can have a big impact.
None of which is to say that sponsorship doesn’t face challenges. Aside from Zika, the big negative story of the year has been the scourge of doping – which is giving athletics the kind of problems that have previously been experienced by cycling. The decision by Adidas and Nestle to part company with international federation the IAAF was a hammer blow to the sports sponsorship business.
Other knocks this year included BP’s decision to end its long-running partnership with The Tate after almost three decades. Although BP has a number of other arts sponsorships in place, the loss of a key financial supporter for the sector is bad news.
Although the consequences of Britain’s departure from the EU are yet to become clear, enough financially-literate commentators have predicted a negative economic outcome for us all to be a bit worried about the near-term prospects. WPP CEO Martin Sorrell says the outcome is a “nightmare”. One of his first comments was that growth in WPP’s UK headcount would be less than in other European markets as the company “refocuses our energy on Germany, France, Spain and Italy”. Just as gloomily, he said: “With the pound devalued, inflation might pick up, investment is likely to be deferred.”
Despite all this, sponsorship’s spirit of innovation means it is well-placed to continue its success story. The industry survived the 2008 financial crisis and the loss of tobacco sponsorship – and it will survive Brexit. At the UK Sponsorship Awards, we look forward to being surprised and inspired by 2017’s crop of entries.
Social Media: Brands have been experimented with digital media for a number of years now. But there’s a sense that they are now finding ways to dovetail their social media marketing with consumer lifestyles in a seamless way. This summer, for example, Budweiser joined forces with ITV Sport and Twitter to sponsor exclusive Euro 2016 highlights. Stella Artois, the official beer sponsor of Wimbledon, did something similar – using Twitter, to deliver real-time sponsored video content to tennis fans.
CSR: BNY Mellon and Newton Investment Management transformed the way we think about CSR this year when they donated their sponsorship of the Oxford & Cambridge Boat Races to Cancer Research UK. They also supported CRUK’s fund-raising activities in the build up to the event, including an event called The Great Row. It’s too early to know how this decision will impact on BNY Mellon and NIM, but there’s clearly potential for both brand to benefit in terms of profile and PR exposure.
Virtual Reality: VR is regarded as the next big thing – with observers predicting it will be a $1billion industry by the end of this year. Brands playing in this space include Jaguar, which utilised VR as part of its #FeelWimbledon campaign. Working with Andy Murray, it created a VR experience that allowed fans to experience what it is like to be hit a winning shot on Wimbledon’s iconic Centre Court. The VR experience, which uses Google Cardboard, was available at locations such as Goodwood Festival of Speed, London Waterloo station and Jaguar’s car dealerships.
Celebrating Fans: In recent years, leading brands like Barclays and Coke have been looking for ways to celebrate fans in exciting and engaging ways. In the run up to Euro 2016, Carlsberg also made fans a priority. Their approach was to send out sports celebrity Chris Kamara in search of people doing acts of kindness. When he saw people performing acts of generosity, he handed them tickets to Euro 2016. Orange also launched a fan-centric campaign around Euro 2016. Called Orange Sponsors You, the campaign was fronted by Zinédine Zidane and involved scouring the world in search of the ultimate fans. At the end of the process, 20 superfans were given tickets to the Euro 2016 final in Paris.
Brand Integration: Brands are always looking for ways to get themselves embedded in films and TV series. Often it is done in a crude or simplistic way (a close up on a watch or mobile phone, a character ordering a branded beer). But Turkish Airlines achieved one of the deals of the year when a 777 Turkish Airlines plane featured in a key scene during Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice. Other recent deals that have caught the intention included Pepsi’s integration into the storyline of Fox Network’s Empire.
Naming Sponsorship: Naming rights doesn’t sound that glamorous – but the sector has gone well beyond badging stadia/arenas/venues as a kind of cheap media buy. These days, rights can be acquired that enhance the visitor experience. O2 and SSE have both been pioneers, linking their venue sponsorships to customer offers such as free drinks, queue hopping and priority ticket purchasing. This year, AEG, which manages The O2 Arena’s sponsorship activities, did an interesting deal with Unilever cleaning brand CIF, under which the latter took on the job of cleaning the vast O2 roof. This has been presented to consumers as a video diary via social media platforms. Its popularity is a powerful indicator of the kind of partnerships that can be built around iconic spaces – if you employ some lateral thinking.
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