I recently came across a piece of research we conducted for a client a few years ago which highlighted the dangers of embarking on a football shirt sponsorship due to the potential brand aversion from fans of the club’s biggest rivals. It is a topic we have debated regularly since; can sponsorship have an equally negative impact to those who dislike the sport/team/individual as it would positively impact the diehard fans?
The basis of any sponsorship is that brands communicate and celebrate the shared interests and values with supporters of a particular rights holder. It provides the platform for a brand to communicate to fans ‘we have a shared passion’ which drives engagement and loyalty. Sport is an incredibly powerful marketing medium because it taps into people’s emotions. Does this mean that the negative side can also be as impactful?
We have witnessed examples of the potentially negative power of a football shirt sponsorship on more than one occasion in qualitative research groups, with fans expressing their disgust of a brand because of its sponsorship and how they would specially avoid it as a result. On each occasion these reactions were from fans of the club’s nearest and most fervent rivals. There is no great surprise here and is precisely the reason why Carling, at one stage, chose to sponsor both Rangers and Celtic at the same time, in fact the Glasgow clubs realised how much of a divisive issue this was and pooled their commercial offering in order to counter it.
Whilst football is the extreme example, should brands sponsoring other sports also be wary? Take BMW for example, this is a brand with a long and substantial relationship with golf all over the world. BMW know that many of the purchasers of their cars are higher income, middle aged men; a group which indexes very highly with the golfer’s tribe, in fact many of their car designs account for the fact that a set of golf clubs needs to fit in the boot. Therefore, one could assume that there is a logical rationale to pursue the current golfing strategic direction. Golf, however, also suffers from a great deal of negative perceptions; a stuffy sport for old white men. So does this mean that a sponsor’s brand will suffer amongst women for example? Whilst the reaction is likely to be less passionate than the football example, there is still the possibility of creating brand avoiders.
This is something that all brands need to consider in any of their brand communication strategies as the creation of brand avoiders can be very damaging. However, as much as I used to urge caution when embarking on some sponsorships I believe this is becoming less of an issue as the landscape changes.
Taking the football club sponsorship example in the first instance. Due to the ever increasing level of sponsorship fees being paid to the top European clubs means that the majority of value derived from these sponsorships is now achieved from outside of the individual city or country of the particularly club. The reality is that any potential anti-sentiment between the Asian fan base of Manchester’s footballs clubs, for example, simply won’t exist because they do not share the same historical dislike of their club’s nearest rivals as the ‘local’ fans do.
We also believe that there is a greater understanding within, sponsorship savvy, brands about the role of sponsorship signage (be it on shirts, perimeter boards or on-screen graphics). Fundamentally this signage provides credibility and acts as awareness driving stimulus for the brand within the territory. It is a vital foundation for the rest of the programme which acts as an enabler for the brand’s activation to specifically target relevant consumers/fans. Relying on the signage inventory to deliver significant benefits as a standalone piece of communication without any additional activation will ensure the failure of the programme. As a result, whilst ‘rival’ fans may be aware of the sponsorship, the majority of the activation plan should, if properly targeted, be invisible to them, therefore the risk of sponsorship aversion is severely reduced.
To conclude, we believe that whilst once this was an issue, it is now lessening. With the globalisation of sponsorship properties and a greater understanding of how to target activation plans ensures that sponsorship aversion is a diminishing issue. It is worth caveating this by highlighting that it is essential to carry out due diligence on any sponsorship property prior to acquisition to negate the risk of damaging negative association. However, this needs to be measured relatively, a brand is not going to be liked by all people all of the time and it is important for it to stand for something. Whilst a sponsorship may generate some negativity amongst a tribe or group of people who aren’t relevant to the brand, this doesn’t necessarily mean the property should be avoided. If done correctly, undertaking a sponsorship that the brand truly believes in will have a far more positive position, netted out, amongst the brand’s advocates versus the avoiders.