How To Activate A Sponsorship – 12 Top Tips To Greater Success


It’s a sponsorship industry truism that every £1 spent on acquiring rights requires a further £2 to be spent on activation. While it’s possible to quibble with the accuracy of the amounts, the basic point is sound – that the most effective sponsorships are the ones with the best activation strategies. Here we look at some of the key ways brands bring a sponsorship to life.

Employee Activation: Any sponsorship activation should seek to involve employees, though the reality is that a lot of companies don’t really do this as well as they might. Those that do tend to focus on ways in which employees can get involved in community-based activation programmes. But there is also a role for sponsorship to help raise employee performance. This is addressed in an interesting blog from consultancy Lane4: Lane 4’s basic point is that brands should negotiate for assets that can be used as part of employee learning and development activities.

Advertising/Marketing Activation: Sponsorship activation should directly relate to brand marketing activity. The most obvious way to do this is to use celebrities connected to the sponsorship in advertising. Santander, for example, has made heavy usage of its talent relationships in recent ad campaigns. Even if there are no celebrities, however, it is very powerful when sponsorship and advertising messaging align. One recent campaign that showed this was P&G’s 2012 Olympic sponsorship, which celebrated the mums who helped make athletes great. The campaign had a clear target market and carried a simple but powerful idea across all communications.

PR Activation: PR (including stunts) is one of the most important elements of any strategy, which means a proactive approach to media is imperative. PR is a great way to showcase campaign creativity and, because it is viewed through the lens of an independent third party, it carries extra credibility. An effective PR strategy will start with the acquisition of rights and cover consumer and b2b media across TV, print and digital. It will make it as easy as possible for key media to get the kind of stories they want and provide easy to access visual assets so that journalists can get what they need close to deadline. There are two key elements to good sponsorship PR, seamless execution and delivery and exciting, show-stopping storytelling. 

Retail Activation: This is obviously dependent on the deal in question, but retail is a great environment for brands seeking to engage with consumers via sponsorship. Mechanics like on-pack promotions and competitions can drive sales and reinforce brand credibility. Some kind of retail activation is often attached to TV sponsorships, providing a tangible follow up to the branded call to action seen on screen. The strong synergy between TV sponsorship and stores explains why so many retailers have signed deals in their own right, examples including Morrisons, Co-op, Superdrug and Iceland. Retail (and venues) can also be used to create mini-events – for example free giveaways of products/services on given days/times.

Venue Activation: Sports and artistic venues are great places to activate sponsorships because they offer a captive audience. Soccer stadia, for example, are classic locations for beers, fast food, finance and consumer electronics firms to either sell or showcase their products (exclusive concession rights, trialling, interactive display booths). In large, physically-spacious venues like music festivals and motor racing circuits, sponsors can get very creative. A good example is the Carling cold beer amnesty (various locations), which allows festival-goers to trade any warm beer for a cold Carling. The idea is ingenious in its own right but is made more powerful by the touch of altruism involved – i.e., no qualms about replacing beers from rivals. In classic venues, perimeters boards are useful for visibility. But better still is when the sponsorship can somehow be linked to the emotional highs of the event. Maybe a prize is awarded if a certain player scores or a specific event takes place.

Cause-Related Activation: 21st century consumers expect brands to go the extra mile, proving that they are not just interested in the content of our wallets. One way to do this is to develop a community-based activation strand involving charitable causes, schools, clubs or some other social strand. It’s not always possible to calculate the direct financial return from this kind of activity but that, perhaps, is one reason why consumers feel positive about brands which engage in this way – the underlining message is that brands are not viewing community-based activity purely in terms of financial ROI.

Digital & Data Activation: Physical sponsorship activation is important, but it is only part of the job.
Consumers spend so much time using digital devices that it’s vital to include a suite of digital activations. One of the big benefits of this is that you can use digital to give consumers a sense of what it is like to be at an event that they are unable to attend. Real-time updates, behind the scenes videos and forums for social interaction are all examples. For sponsors, the key is to be seen as the intermediary that makes it possible for fans to get closer to their favourite stars, teams or events.  Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram should all be harnessed as part of any sponsorship activation strategy. Mobile is increasingly central to people’s lives and should have a part to play in sponsorship activation (think about the way O2 has used sponsorship to build its Priority programme). Increasingly, brands should also be seeking to gather and act on data that is generated by sponsorships.

Content-based Activation: Most leading brands have realised that compelling content is a great way to communicate with audiences. Red Bull is a classic example of this approach, sponsoring and creating action sports events and then using the resulting content as a way to disseminate its brands. The most complex form of content-based activation is advertiser-funded programming, but there are lower-cost alternatives ranging from vignettes to product placement in TV and film. Digital is also becoming central to content-based sponsorship strategies. UEFA sponsor Heineken, with agency AKQA, created a game-based concept called Star Player during Euro 2012.

Business Activation: Great sponsorships capture the spirit of a company’s corporate culture, so it makes sense to try and embed the partnership into the architecture of the business. This can be done by adding sponsorship motifs to the design and livery of physical assets like offices, owned retail outlets, showrooms, warehouses and vehicles. The key ideas of the sponsorship can also be integrated into activities like away days and presentations and be used as part of internal incentive programmes. Any communication with customers, notably direct mail, should reference back to the partnership’s values.

Hospitality Activation: Hospitality at sport and arts/entertainment events is a great way to engage with key decision-makers in the private and public sectors. On the one hand it can provide a platform for lead generation (i.e., introductions to budget-holders). On the other, it can help sustain existing relationships, making sure that current clients are satisfied with the service they are receiving. Events aren’t always the right place to go into too much specific detail but they can provide actionable insights to be followed up later. 

Innovation Activation: To some extent this overlaps other categories such as digital and content. But sponsors should always be on the lookout for cutting edge social developments that might play into their strategy. Does the move towards wearable technology offer an opportunity, for example? Or energy conservation technologies? Finding ways to link with new social developments creates a good story for the media and also positions your brand as forward-thinking.

Celebrity Activation: This is another category that weaves in and out of the more mainstream headings. But, in essence, do your best to acquire celebrity access rights alongside your sponsorship. Choose to work with engaging and willing celebrities who don’t regard their brand-based duties as an onerous chore. Try and devise experiences that are fun for them too. Try to bring them into contact with employees and consumers in novel ways that appeal to media editors.

In Conclusion: The most important think about activation is to excite the audience, so think out of the box. Think about what the core promises of your brand are and look for ways to apply them to specific sponsorship scenarios. In the US, Pizza Hut delivers pizza to fans watching American football and basketball. As long as this doesn’t interfere with people’s enjoyment, this is a great way to showcase the brand’s skills. Use sponsorship to make the brand the best version of itself.


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