There has been a spate of stories in recent weeks about political scrutiny of financial service sponsorship deals. In the UK, the focus has been on RBS – active across a range of sports such as F1 and rugby union in recent years. In the US, the spotlight has been on Manchester United’s shirt sponsor AIG.
In the former case, the issue is shareholder value – with politicians using the benefit of hindsight to question the wisdom of the company’s strategy. In the latter, the issue is what happens when a commercial company is, in effect, nationalised. With AIG now US government-owned, there has been a call in some quarters for the insurer to withhold future payments to United (since it is now playing with taxpayer money).
How all of this will play out in political circles is still unclear. But even if it goes nowhere, it still raises a couple of commercial questions about how other brands might react.
The first is whether brands will get nervous about engaging in sponsorship because of the wider consumer perception of the medium. Currently, sports and arts sponsorship is being presented by the media and politicians as a kind of board-level perk – the corporate equivalent of politicians’ expenses. So what if the target market starts to think like this too?
Anyone working in the industry knows how unfair this simplistic view is – but is it is possible that brands will decide to stay away from sponsorship simply because of the threat of negative PR? In the same way that bankers are being told to dress down by their bosses, will brands decide they need to be less showy. After all, they always have the alternative of advertising – which rarely attracts this negative publicity.
Let’s assume, at very least, that brands ask their consultancies this question – even if they don’t ultimately run from sponsorship, however. What might the industry suggest as a way of counteracting bad press? Well one obvious suggestion would be to give even more back at community level. If elite properties like F1 and the Premier League carry the risk of negative PR, then maybe the answer is even more grass roots activities – or properties like the Olympics which carry with them a sense of nation-building and social responsibility. If its endorsements, then maybe the premium will be on stars that are willing to get their hands dirty by interacting with the fanbase.
Possibly it’s also the right time to raise the research argument again. With the media spotlight shining on the industry, perhaps now is the time for brands to spend a little more time and effort on proving sponsorship return-on-investment. That could be backed up with a charm offensive on the press – in order to get the message across that sponsorship is a hard-working medium.
All in all, it’s not a time to sit back and whinge about how unfairly the sponsorship industry is treated. If people think the medium is an executive perk, then it’s up to brands and consultancies to rectify that through stakeholder engagement.