O Come All Ye Sponsors! The Power of Festive Sponsorship

For many businesses, the run up to Christmas can make or break their year. So it’s no surprise that big brands spend a fortune on Christmas-themed TV commercials as a way of engaging with consumers. But how does their sponsorship activity compare? With just a few sleeps left before the big day, the UKSA team investigates.

Festive sponsorships can be perceived as a risk for a number of reasons. The first is that they are only active for a short period of time – meaning that they can seem like an expensive exercise. But that criticism could also be aimed at sports events like the Summer Olympics (just two weeks in length). The trick is to extend the activation across the greatest possible time (2-3 months) and make sure you don’t overspend. The second is that they can be seen to cater for a particular section of the community – alienating other religious communities, non-believers and the lonely/isolated in society. But the reality is that Christmas is loved by pretty much everybody, and that spirit can be tapped into without being divisive. The third is that there are risks in being seen to commercialise Christmas. But again this isn’t a problem if the sponsor in question gets the tone right – focusing on family, goodwill, generosity – and turning down the volume on the sales pitch (leave that to shouty TV/radio commercials or personalised online/mobile ads).

As with festive TV ads, the potential downsides of festive sponsorship are offset by the transformational impact that a Christmas connection can have on a brand. John Lewis is the best example, with its ads transforming the retailer into a kind of national treasure. Aldi’s Kevin the Carrot is starting to achieve similar star status. In addition, Xmas sponsorships don’t have to be national or international in scale; such is the range of festive ‘assets’ that brands can be as local as they want or need. So what opportunities are open to sponsors? Below we look at some of the prime examples:

Christmas markets/lights: Attending Christmas markets and the switching on of seasonal lights are both popular activities in the run up to December 25th. Disney was the first brand ever to sponsor the Oxford Street Lights in 2007, and has been followed since then by the likes of Marmite and Pandora. It’s not just London that is of interest, however. Bath has a spectacular Christmas market that attracts in excess of 400,000 people a year. Local brands that have cottoned on to the potential of the event include law firm Mogers Drewett and Hotel Indigo, which used the market to support its launch phase.

Pantomimes: Leading pantomime companies like Ambassador Theatre Group (ATG) and Qdos have had a lot of success securing sponsors across multiple venues (usually finding ways to integrate them into the show itself. Over the years, brands like Hasbro, 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, Skype and Churchill have all managed to support shows without coming across as pantomime villains. Once again, there are both national and local opportunities for sponsors with pantos. Bristol Hippodrome, for example, signed up Somerset retail outlet Clarks Village as a sponsor this year. One of the nice added benefits of pantos is that they run into January.

TV/Radio Sponsorship: It’s over 20 years since Panasonic broke new ground when it signed up as a Christmas sponsor with ITV. Since then numerous brands have tested the festive waters, notably Rennie back in 2012 (ITV) and Famous Grouse in 2014 (Channel 4). In 2018, high-profile examples included toy retailer The Entertainer on ITV and Not On The High Street, which sponsored a range of content across C4 and UKTV. That campaign is reckoned to have reached 39.7m adults via 2000 hours of sponsored programmes including The Simpsons, Gogglesprogs & Kirstie's Handmade Christmas. Don’t forget that similar impact can be achieved with radio. This year, Bauer’s Magic Radio switched its playlist to 100% Christmas music, in partnership with Sky Cinema with Universal Parks & Resorts.

Christmas Trees: Trees are going to save the planet, so what better way to show support for future generations that by sponsoring a Christmas Tree? Town squares and shopping malls up and down the country have huge trees simply crying out to be sponsored by local banks, estate agents or retailers. Recent years have also seen a wave of stunning Christmas Tree Festivals popping up around the country. Typically held in churches and cathedrals, these festivals offer businesses low cost opportunities to dress a tree, alongside charities, schools and other community groups. They really are the ultimate goodwill opportunity to connect with local audiences.

Ice Rinks: Ice rinks are one of the most iconic images at Christmas, beautifully decked out with lights and decorations. Often, they are also in iconic locations – outside museums, in parks, next to historic buildings. Ice rinks don’t just offer access to the skating audiences but also the thousands of passers-by who like to stand at the side and laugh. Samsung spotted the nature of the opportunity, sponsoring the rink at Hyde Park Winter Wonderland. Many years back, Andrex linked up with the rinks at Tower of London and Hampton Court. Fortnum & House has really shown how to do the rink sponsorship in style – having partnered Somerset House for the last four years. A 40 foot Christmas tree by the rink is bedecked with Fortnum Hampers. There is also an excellent pop up Fortnum & Mason shopping arcade next to the rink, providing the brand with an opportunity to reach people who don’t know the iconic store on Piccadilly. As a side note, the rink-side Skate Lounge is run by Baileys.

Retail/Malls: It goes without saying that shopping malls are rammed with shoppers in the run up to Christmas. While the primary objective of visitors is to target their favourite retailers, most leading malls have spaces where innovative or imaginative brands can engage with audiences. Pop up shops, sampling opportunities, Santa Grottos, festive installations – there are dozens of ways to interact with visitors as they drag themselves from shop to shop. Maybe there are also ways to support the service side of big malls – parking discounts, wi-fi add-ons, navigational aids. Harvey Nichols is one brand that has tried this approach, opening up a festive shop and bar in Westfield a few years ago. For mid-sized retailers that risk being lost in the scrum, sponsorship may be a way of directing customers to their stores (assuming the mall is willing to sanction such activity).

Charity: Christmas is a great time for brands to show their support for charities. Many charities see the festive season as an opportunity to tug at people’s heart strings – especially around themes like homelessness, community, loneliness (age-related charities) and pets. For some brands, there is an opportunity here to co-message with a particular charity, or maybe invest in on-the-ground activation. This has certainly happened in the Christmas ad arena, with brands like John Lewis, Sainsbury’s and Argos specifically linking their festive campaigns to charitable goals. The likes of Starbucks, Uber and Pret a Manger have also displayed their charitable side.

New Year. If Christmas feels like a risk for your brand, then there is always the culturally-neutral New Year opportunity instead. As with Christmas, there are plenty of iconic assets to latch on to – for example fireworks displays. Edinburgh’s Hogmanay probably has the best organised sponsorship programme, thanks to its long heritage. Supporters include Johnnie Walker, Scotrail and Brewdog. London has, over the years, been able to offer free New Year’s Eve travel thanks to sponsors such as Diageo, Smirnoff and Kayak. Here’s a guide to the best way to go about attracting a New Year sponsor.

Use your imagination: Brands can use Christmas as an opportunity to let their imaginations run wild. A great example is this Samsung campaign in the US. Here, the consumer electronics brand converted an abandoned mall into a holiday haven for underprivileged kids. The entire winter wonderland experience was captured on Galaxy Note8 phones and released on YouTube star Casey Neistat channel. The beauty of this kind of innovation is that it can provide inspiration for other ground-breaking creative executions throughout the year. 

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