The Most Important Rule of Sponsorships: Invest Rather Than Buy

Three Questions That Shouldn't Go Unasked

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Even though spending on corporate partnerships with sports, entertainment and nonprofit organizations will reach $18 billion in North America this year, a majority of sponsorships remain ad hoc projects, fragmented and siloed within the company rather than optimized, integrated and aligned behind growth and enterprise-wide impact.

To maximize their return on these significant relationships, marketers must shift from being buyers of sponsorships to investors in partnerships. What's the difference? A buyer acquires something for limited use or to serve a single purpose. An investor, on the other hand, seeks to maximize return and is more likely to develop multiple ways to earn dividends and work in concert with the investment property.

Here are three questions companies should ask themselves to find out if they're buyers or investors:

1. Do you know what you want to do and with whom to do it?
Investing in partnerships begins with banning the term "sponsorship strategy."

Sponsorships and partnerships should start from the outside in. They should be the organic answer to the question: What does the business need?

Frito-Lay's built a relationship between the Doritos brand and the NFL.
Frito-Lay's built a relationship between the Doritos brand and the NFL.
Frito-Lay's NFL partnership and Super Bowl activation for Doritos did not begin with the brand managers exploring what to sponsor to reach consumers. It started with the search for a solution to the problem that Doritos' brand equity was off 40% and sales were down. Frito-Lay identified an alliance with the NFL as a way to rebuild brand equity and worked from there to explore a relationship.

Once you have determined that a partnership will help accomplish an objective, it is time to build a strategy to leverage the relationship not only to meet its main goal, but also to take advantage of its ability to serve a wide range of other business-building purposes.

The criterion for a partnership investment is alignment of brand values on top of audience fit. An investor must do due diligence to understand your partner's brand: what it stands for; what its key attributes are; and its potential to impact the same elements of your brand.

2. Are we truly engaging our target group?

Don't let the fact that the term engagement has become one of the most overused words in marketing detract from this essential truism: Engagement is the core principle of investment partnerships.

Partnership investors understand that engagement extends far beyond awareness and positive attitudes. It is critical for generating response, whether creating a memory trace, instilling loyalty and driving purchase. It also happens to be the best indicator of a partnership's current and future performance.

Engagement, however, requires real insights into the target audience. Why and how are they involved with the partner? What is the appropriate role for the sponsor to play in their experience?

3. Are we measuring results in a meaningful way?

Partnership investors understand sponsorship is not a medium and thus it cannot be evaluated using media-centric constructs like reach, frequency and efficiency.

Partnership evaluations must be deeper and broader. Partnerships are powerful catalysts to enhance and improve the performance of media -- paid, owned and earned -- as well as directly affect other areas of the business, from sales to staff retention to brand health.

Partnership investors find ways to evaluate everything that is meaningful and ignore measures that are easy to tally but worthless unless connected to outcomes further down the trail.

Investing in partnerships requires more time, more thought and more expertise -- and involves more people, departments and resources -- than buying sponsorship benefits.

But the success of brands and corporations that have evolved into partnership investors proves that adopting this new way of thinking leads to more meaningful and fruitful relationships with partners, consumers, customers and stakeholders.

Jim Andrews is senior VP of IEG, a unit of WPP's Group M.

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