With college football just crowning its new champion and the NFL playoffs underway, we’re reminded again how important sports are to so many people. Because of this passion, partnering with sports properties can be a meaningful way to market a brand. Just in 2014, North American companies spent over $14 billion dollars to acquire sponsorship rights to sports properties and European companies spent nearly $15 billion. Some brands, like Gatorade, are sport-related, so it makes great sense to market through sports. But brands from all kinds of product categories (from soft drinks to cars to insurance companies) also use sport sponsorships to accomplish their business objectives.
Here are six tips for using sport sponsorship as a brand building strategy.
1. Fan Passion Means Brand Passion
The principle of “liking transfer” states that a person’s liking toward one object also transfers to other objects that are associated with it. And the stronger the liking is, the more likely it is that it will transfer to the other entities. This mechanism can create beneficial sponsorship partnerships for brands.
Aligning your brand with sports properties that have passionate fan bases means opportunities to turn the fans into passionate consumers. NASCAR fans especially are well-known for exhibiting fan loyalty equals brand loyalty behaviors.
An important benefit for sponsors is the ability to use the property’s trademark. Therefore, to further capitalize on fan passion as a sponsor, it’s wise to offer products with the property’s trademarks (e.g., logo). Bud Light offered team-themed cans for NFL fans this season, a clever way to motivate fans to buy the product.
2. Beware Of Rivalries
Just as there is “liking transfer” there can also be “disliking transfer.” In sports, many die-hard fans have strong dislike toward rival teams, which can translate to similar dislike toward their sponsors.
Companies should be careful about winning customers without alienating rival fan base. Often in these cases, brands may sponsor the entire league or sponsor both rivals reducing the risk of any negative responses. Some notable examples include Delta sponsoring both the Yankees and the Mets and McDonald’s sponsoring both the Green Bay Packers and the Chicago Bears.
3. Small, Local Brands Can Win Big
For most local companies (e.g., a restaurant or car dealership) partnering with the local team can be beneficial. The connection will tap on the fans’ passion for their team and attract them to the brand. At the same time, there is little risk for backlash from supporters of rivals for geographic reasons.
For example, the rivalry between the Montreal Canadiens and the Boston Bruins is probably the most intense one in the National Hockey League. As much as Montreal fans may dislike their rivals and their sponsors, they wouldn’t be going to Boston for dinner plans or buying a car anyway.
4. Build Brand Awareness
For unknown brands, sports sponsorships can offer a quick way to gaining exposure and recognition. Obviously, it is easier to build such awareness through bigger properties but again it is largely a function of who the target market is.
National brands will probably need to sponsor bigger properties on a national scale, whereas local companies only need awareness within the local market.
College football bowl games have often been used by companies that were trying to expand nationally to help them become better known in a short period of time.
5. Meaningful Engagement Matters
While building awareness is great, meaningful sponsorships are more than just eyeballs and impressions.
Sponsorships that engage the fans are more likely to be impactful and build meaningful relationships between the brands and the fans. Therefore, sponsors need to design exciting and creative engagement activations and go above and beyond simply using the phrase “official partner of” in their ads.
6. Protect Your Investment
Sponsorship partnerships are investments and need to be treated as such. Purposeful activation not only helps potential return on investment but can also defend against potential ambush efforts by competitors.
Clever ambush marketing campaigns establish a connection to a sports property by creatively using wording and themes that associate with the property without using any authorized trademarks. Therefore, official sponsors must actively activate their sponsorship, especially through use of benefits that are only available for them, like use of the property’s trademarks and on-site presence.
Building brands through sports sponsorships requires strategical effort and additional money (above the cost for acquiring the sponsorship rights) but without them, the sponsorship may be all in vain. Just like an expensive toy can’t run without batteries, a sponsorship can’t do much without meaningful activation.
Dr. Vassilis Dalakas is a professor of marketing at Cal State University San Marcos and a visiting professor at the San Diego State University Sports MBA program. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Oregon, home of the James Warsaw Sports Marketing Center. He has published numerous articles on sports marketing and sponsorship. You can reach him on Twitter at @DrSportBusiness.