6 Tips For Building Your Brand Through Sports Sponsorships

Why you should think about using sport spon­sor­ship as a brand build­ing strat­e­gy.

Vassilis Dalakas By Vassilis Dalakas from California State University San Marcos. Join the discussion » 0 comments

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.

Vassilis Dalakas

Written by Vassilis Dalakas

Professor of Marketing, California State University San Marcos

Dr. 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.

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