On the Record: The Carrot and Stick Strategy

A little over 10 years ago, I heard a conference speaker refer to sponsorship as "the brown suede shoe in a sea of black tuxedos." Apart from wishing I'd said it first, I was struck then - and still am now - by the way in which sponsorship has firmly retained its position as the Cinderella of the marketing mix, while advertising retains the mantle of Prince Charming.

Despite numerous predictions of the demise of conventional advertising - especially TV advertising - it's a craft that continues to hold sway in the marketing hierarchy and will do so for a good while yet.

While advertising is in a process of gradual transition, the same is true of every other aspect of the media ecosystem in response to digital communications, emerging media, changing consumer media behaviors and so on. All that can really be debated is the pace of that transition, its various directions and consequences and where it will all end up.

Ads aren't going away, but the forms they take and the means by which the core elements of advertising are applied is where the form's evolution is most interesting.

As the industry pursues the holy grail of the genuinely engaged consumer, it's likely that in the fullness of time it will be commonly acknowledged that slapping a 30-second spot in the middle of a piece of engaging content is perhaps not the best way to do it. While there remains some merit in this intrusion-based model of communications that does at least get noticed by a percentage of the audience, as consumers become ever-more controlling of their media experiences, such simplistic approaches - which worked well enough in days of more passive media consumption - will be less satisfying to all concerned.

There will likely be many solutions to this challenge, only some worthwhile. Many of them will not be new, but will instead represent different approaches to familiar disciplines. One of these will be a more coherent and rigorous approach to planning and leveraging sponsorship.

The right sponsorship allows brands to leverage media properties, achieving a plethora of communications objectives through an inter-disciplinary program of activities that emanate from a credible association with the right vehicles. A properly leveraged sponsorship program would include above the line advertising, direct marketing, PR, hospitality, investor relations, etc. The core sponsorship vehicle would ideally have been chosen for its ability to provide these opportunities. Sadly, with some exceptions, this still is not the norm.

There are many reasons why this is the case - some of the biggest are related to silos within the marketing function on both the client and supply side - but the reasons why it's worth overcoming them are compelling. Fundamentally, it comes back to the sponsoring brand's desire to build relationships of substance with their consumers. By sponsoring the right vehicle, the brand buys into a pre-existing relationship of choice between the consumer and the sponsored party or activity. Very often there is real passion in this relationship and, if respectful, a sponsor can earn a place at the table and a right to participate in a dialogue.

Having established credibility as a sponsor and proved committed to an activity and its followers, the door is then open for a wide-ranging program of activity aimed at leveraging that position in ways that reinforce overall brand positioning, target increased sales and the like. And this is where that list of other marketing activities comes in, including advertising - still used to achieve the brand's objectives, but using the sponsorship as the lever.

An increasing number of 30-second spots will lead off with the association they've earned in the eyes of the brand's audience with an activity of mutual interest. Nike and Adidas are past masters of this approach - advertising their products and brands by advertising their associations with athletes and teams.

In this scenario, selecting the right vehicle becomes a new kind of media planning - one in which sponsorship vehicles are evaluated for how they can be measured and leveraged across disciplines. It's also one in which maybe Prince Charming gets a little help from Cinderella, rather than the other way around.

Mike Bloxham is director of insight & research at the Center for Media Design, Ball State University. (

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