20 Years Of Sponsorship Celebrated at Sponsorship Awards - Who Would Be Your Winner?


To celebrate its 20th Anniversary, the 2014 UK Sponsorship Awards will present a special one-off award to the best sponsorship of the last two decades. The winner will be decided through an online ballot after an industry-wide debate. So to get the ball rolling, Andy Fry takes a look at a few of the brands that could be in contention for this prestigious award.

Sponsorship has come of age in the last 20 years. No longer regarded as a chairman’s whim, it plays a central role in the brand communications strategies at pretty much any major corporation you can think of. Coca-Cola, Cadbury, Samsung, Visa, Vodafone, Nike, Carlsberg, Barclays, Ford and hundreds more have realised they can’t engage effectively with target audiences without some kind of sponsorship activation.

In part, this is because of digital fragmentation, which has made it much harder to reach mainstream audiences via spot ads. But more important has been a seismic shift in consumer psychology. Today’s consumers have so much choice and control that it’s not enough for brands to just pump out a series of ads and wait for the punters to react. Instead, they need sponsorship to help them build meaningful connections at point-of-sale, in homes and via digital and social media.

This in turn has led to a golden age of sponsorship activation. At a general level, brands have worked out how to use their sponsorship rights all year round, rather than limiting their activation to short bursts around events. They’ve also become more adept at sponsorship co-creation, working out exactly what rights they need and how best to exploit them. And on top of all this they’ve started to make sponsorship and social media work in tandem. These days, more and more brands use sponsorship, endorsements and branded content as a way to enter real-time dialogue with consumers or encourage them to take the final crucial step towards a digital transaction.

So which brands have proved that they understand sponsorship over the last 20 years? Well one company that undoubtedly gets it is Coca-Cola, whose long-running relationships with the Olympic movement and FIFA have provided a masterclass in sponsorship activation. It’s difficult, for example, to think of a brand that did more to bring the 2010 South Africa World Cup to life. Activities such as the Trophy Tour, What’s Your Celebration? Campaign and Wavin’ Flag anthem were as much a part of the 2010 FIFA event as the dreaded Vuvuzelas.

Coke hasn’t restricted itself to international events either. In the UK, it established itself as a leading football sponsor through its partnership with the Football League Cup (1992-1998) and its support for the Football League (which was called the Coca Cola Championship until 2009/2010). Both sponsorships were shrewd pieces of business, because a) they showed that Coke wasn’t only interested in the elite end of the sport and b) they were much more flexible properties than the FIFA World Cup, allowing Coke to be creative with its activities.

Of course, there have been dozens of great soccer sponsorships. Barclays has made very good use of its association with the English Premier League, though many observers will still have a sneaking regard for Carling’s association with the EPL, which ran from 1993-2001. It was Carling, as the EPL’s first sponsor, that showed it was possible for brands to be embraced by fans as part of the footie family.

Building society Nationwide’s 11-year partnership with England (1999-2010) was another memorable period in sponsorship history, attempting as it did to readdress the balance between fan and corporate benefits. In many ways, Nationwide – seeking to distinguish itself from banks – foreshadowed later trends in the sector, which have all been about creating a more consumer-centric feel to the way sponsorship is activated. 

By contrast to team and event sponsorships, club sponsorships come and go and are easily forgotten. But one deal that stands out is the Emirates partnership with Arsenal. By encompassing shirt and stadia, the deal gave Emirates a prominent position in English soccer and also acted as a template for later alliances across Europe. Today, the company has sponsorship deals with FIFA, Paris St-Germain, Real Madrid, AC Milan and Hamburg, making it one of the most influential brands in the sport.

While football deals are especially eye-catching, any survey of the last 20 years also needs to take account of the RBS Six Nations Championships, a sponsorship arrangement that started in 2003 and will run until at least 2017. Few sponsorships last so long, which is a point of distinction in itself. But just as impressive is the way that the Six Nations brand has continued to flourish at a time when the banking industry has been under such pressure. Echoing Coke’s activities in football, RBS has made the relationship work across every part of its business while supporting rugby from grass roots to glory.

There will also be supporters of Guinness and 02, both of which have been staunch sponsors of rugby union. But just as impressive has been NatWest’s 33-year association with cricket. What’s remarkable about this partnership is the way it has evolved. From 1981 to 2000, NatWest sponsored the NatWest Trophy before moving on to sponsor the NatWest One Day International (ODI) Series from 2000 to 2013. In 2013, NatWest then struck deal with the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) to become the title sponsor of Twenty20 (T20) cricket at all levels – starting from 2014. All of this comes on top of its grassroots activity via NatWest Cricketforce.

Pages more could be written about sports sponsorships such as Lloyds-TSB’s sponsorship of London 2012, John Smith’s partnership with the Grand National, Vodafone’s alliance with McLaren, Flora’s relationship with the London Marathon, the much-loved Stella Artois tennis tournament or the genius that has gone into Nike and Adidas athlete endorsements. But that wouldn’t leave room for the superb array of sponsorships that have taken place in fields like arts, media, music and education.

Who, for example, would bet against O2 winning the top prize for its incredibly effective millennium dome naming rights deal, supported by an array of related activities in music? Well Cadbury’s supporters might. Amid the myriad of TV sponsorships that have come and gone since the market was liberalised in the early 1990s, none shine more brightly than Cadbury’s sponsorship of Coronation Street (1996-2007).

Of course, the field of TV sponsorship has come on a lot since then. These days, a TV sponsorship isn’t fulfilling its true potential unless it is plugged into a multiplatform programme of activities and a related retail strategy. Domino’s Pizza’s decade-long sponsorship of The Simpsons on Sky1 was a classic example of the power of this approach. That deal may be over, but Domino’s attraction to the TV sponsorship sector is shown by more recent deals with ITV shows like Splash, Red or Black and the mobile App for 2013’s edition of The X Factor.

In the field of music events, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more ground-breaking sponsorship than T in The Park, the Tennents-backed event which launched 20 years ago. But then you might be inclined to give your vote to Virgin’s V, which started two years later in 1996. Failing that you might look instead to mass participation events such as the Virgin-backed London Marathon or BUPA-powered Great North Run.

Arts sponsorship can’t compete with sport and music in terms of scale or financial support. But the eventual winner of this award will need to demonstrate more than just a big budget. Over the years, the UK Sponsorship Awards has been fortunate enough to see excellent arts campaigns from Lloyds Bank, HSBC, Sky, BP, Deloitte and many more. Stand out examples include Unilever’s support for the Tate Modern’s turbine hall (which ended in 2010) andTravelex’s ground-breaking cheap ticket offer with the National Theatre, a truly transformational relationship which saw 360,000 tickets go to first-time visitors to the NT during the first ten years of the sponsorship.

There are many more sponsorships that could be mentioned. But now it’s over to you to have your say. If you want to nominate a sponsorship for this award contact rosie@sponsorship-awards.co.uk with a short explanation as to why you’ve chosen it. Based on feedback from the industry, the UK Sponsorship Awards team, made up of experts from the industry ,will draw up a shortlist and then open it up to the industry for voting. The campaign that polls the highest number of votes will win the Award. To be eligible for entry, sponsorships need to be UK-based or have had a meaningful UK component to them. The aim of the Award to reward a specific campaign not a brand’s entire sponsorship portfolio. But we will consider scenarios where a brand’s relationship with a rights holders has varied over time (see NatWest example cited above). 

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