The Lost Art of Sponsorship

"Will someone get these cute animal pictures the hell out of my living room?" I scream into the unresponsive ether that is my household. My coffee table is strewn with damnable images of fuzzy puppies in unlikely situations (hanging from a counter, wondering how they got there) and kittens popping out of blouses. For Christmas this year, both my partner and my daughter traded 365-day calendars of cute animals, and now they rip off the pages and leave them for one another to enjoy. The chorus of "Awws" punctuates my day, and I find myself stepping on pictures of wide-eyed retrievers all night. /p>

We are only a month into the year and I am up to my ankles in calculated cuteness. "Get these out of here, please? Why can't you guys just use 12-month calendars?"

 "Dad, look who is talking. Look at your wall." My daughter points to a Winslow Homer calendar on my kitchen wall, turned to February... 2007. "You remembered to turn the page of a calendar once three years ago."

 This is one of those moments when I long for the days when we didn't pay for calendars, when your insurance company or oil company sent a complimentary desk or wall calendar that kept their brand and service number always at hand. The brilliant simplicity of this model seems to have been lost in the age of ever-richer and intrusive ad units, none-too-subtle product placement, and carpet-bomb ad campaigns. "Be there and be of use" was an unstated maxim of simple promotions like these, but now the reigning maxim is "be in your face." The brand that shouts loudest wins.

Now that a bit of the fervor over branded apps has died down, it has become clearer to a lot of marketers that not every brand translates easily into the kind of utility consumers really want on their phone. Some publishers tell me that they are getting a lot of interest from marketers who want to be sole sponsor of new branded media apps. Instead of buying up a new audience for their branded app, they prefer to align with a tool and a media source brand that has already built an audience. 

One of the smartest app strategies I have seen from a media company is Rodale's fleet of over 30 individual apps, including the very popular Eat This, Not That and multiple workout, diet and trainer apps under the Prevention, Men's Health and Women's Health monikers. Unlike some media companies that put out a single branded news or magazine app (Esquire, Playboy, GQ, for instance), Rodale has a more fragmented approach that focuses on mobile tools and references. In the process, they have created a flexible catalog of available ad inventory that can be leveraged as sole sponsorships.

Most of the Rodale apps are fee-based, so any one of them can be flipped into a "lite" free version with a sole sponsor. The Women's Health Mobile Workout Series, for instance, is a $1.99 app, but a new Lite variant has a sample of routines and exercise walkthrough for free, underwritten by exercise equipment manufacturer Savasa. The brand presence is relatively slight but unmistakable. The initial load screen has the sponsor brand and the main menu gets a banner. For reasons I don't quite fathom, the banner clicks through to a full Web site that doesn't format to portrait mode. Still, like the oil company that once underwrote our annual calendar, Rodale communicates a real value exchange for the user.

An even better sole sponsor integration is the Knorr presence in Women's Day's Cooking Assistant. A "from our sponsor" Knorr-branded recipe occupies the top slot of the opening page of featured recipes, and a three-second, full-page interstitial meets you upon entering the app's tools section.

In the Women's Health and Women's Day apps, the designers have done a good job of presenting their clients subtly but insistently. The opening screen of the Women's Health app uses a fade-in to feature the sponsor. The Women's Day app has a splash screen that opens with the editorial brand and then fades in the Knorr logo.

I know I beat this drum a lot, but I think that because of the focus and limited frame mobile allows, media and marketers can do things here they couldn't do on the Web. Staged splash pages and interstitials can feel much less intrusive and much more seamless in this environment than the roadblocks they are in a Web browser. It is not surprising to me that magazine brands seem to be the first to embrace these possibilities, because the app environment restores to the content that full-page presence and immersiveness the Web often lacks. It feels more like print than the Web does. 

I don't think anyone will accuse the new PowerBar sponsorship of's iPhone app being subtle, but it does show how much of its own messaging a sponsoring brand can strap onto an existing mobile audience. The logo now dominates the splash screen and interstitials in the app, and prompts to opt-in abound. There is even a top line menu icon dedicated to Power Bar.

Some longtime users of the app are complaining that Power Bar has taken it over and somehow diminished an app they once liked. The brand presence is pretty strong. The publisher, is now relegated to a sponsor-like icon ("powered by") at the bottom of the splash screen. Still, to its credit the sponsor gives back some value. Not only is the app free -- but the special section of PowerBar content is actually a mobile mini-site filled with video and athlete profiles, as well as the relentless attempt to get your email, and a sampler sign-up. While not all publishers will want a sponsor to overwhelm their own brand this thoroughly, they could do worse than to offer sole sponsors the opportunity to graft a mobile mini-site into the app.

It has always seemed to me that persistent, subtle messaging that resides seamlessly in trusted content and works with a publisher's design sense ultimately is the most powerful. At their best, mobile apps might not only restore some of the aesthetic values we are losing in the steady decline of print media. It may also remind us just how garish and unpolished a media environment we created on the Web. Mobile media and marketing executed very well makes even some of the best rich-media banner ads look frowsy and out-of-place. 

1 comment about "The Lost Art of Sponsorship".
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  1. Roger Wilson from The Conference Department, Inc., February 4, 2010 at 4:44 p.m.

    Sponsorship is certainly an art and "be there and be of use" is a great term of art.

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