Andrew Green

The prominence of sponsorship as part of an integrated marketing communications program has risen sharply in recent years.

A more mature understanding of the benefits of sponsorship for brand owners is well reflected in some of the recent metrics to emerge: double-digit growth; global spend on sponsorship exceeding US$40 billion; and recent evidence from a Sponsorship Decision Maker Survey indicating that corporate marketers commit a quarter of their overall marketing, advertising and promotional spend to sponsorship.

While companies are certainly broadening their sponsorship repertoires, in Australia sport still dominates, with 62 per cent of all investment in sponsorship falling under the sports banner. Most of that spend is dedicated rights fees and supporting promotional spend. Although spend on sponsorship research remains modest, research has played an important role in transforming the appeal and effectiveness of sponsorship as a tool to engage and build relationships with consumers. While traditionally focused on evaluating activity, sponsorship research has now become far more sophisticated. Research has evolved to reflect the greater emphasis on the commercial return of sponsorship investment and there’s been some interesting trends emerging in recent times that reflect this more discerning and strategic bent.

Harnessing the passion to deliver results

Sponsorship has always been talked of as being about ‘creating a bond with consumers or customers’ but now marketers are genuinely paying more than lip service to this imperative. What this means is that research is now more fully integrated across the sponsorship planning process, informing property selection and partnership strategy (which sports brand to invest in), identifying activation opportunities (the types of promotional activity that will engage fans), as well as measuring performance. There is recognition that the same level of rigour needs to be applied as is set in place for other ‘above the line’ activities.

Perhaps the most significant shift in sponsorship research has been the change in emphasis on metrics used in evaluating sponsorship activity (i.e. what branded exposure and awareness levels were generated). This plays out with research being utilised more at the preparation stage to forensically explore consumers’ interests, media and lifestyle habits, informing a brand’s choice of property and importantly, their strategies supporting the sponsorship. Whilst increasing brand loyalty and creating awareness remain key objectives amongst many brand owners, more focus is being increasingly given to developing commitment, increasing sales, stimulating trial of new products and services and a focus on social issues (e.g. drink driving). Understanding consumers’ passions and how brands enhance consumers’ experiences is central to a sponsorship team being able to meet these objectives.

Research has evolved from essentially being generic (and often superficial) reportage of broad-based measures to a deeper evaluation where the consumer is at the heart of the conversation.

Giving me an edge

Just as every professional team and athlete has a sport scientist in the support crew, marketers are now far more reliant on the science of research to shape decision-making and underpin sponsorship strategies. In a few short years, sports research has become far more sophisticated, with greater intensity and rigour applied at every step by those holding the most effective properties.

We have moved from measuring association to engagement, from awareness to sales and from stop watches to image recognition. (Stop watches used to be used to monitor logo exposure in TV coverage in order to calculate a media value for sponsors. Students used to sit and click on and off every time they saw the brand on a TV screen. All this is now automated using image recognition software.

We’re also using both established and contemporary methodologies to immerse ourselves in the world of consumers, in order to understand their passions and build differentiated engagement strategies. As sponsorship portfolios expand beyond sport to include community initiatives, music and cause-related partnerships, the demand for dedicated and tailored sponsorship evaluations is replacing an ‘add-on’ module in regular tracking. Telstra’s recent development of a propriety measurement tool to provide it with a greater understanding of how its sponsorships deliver on specific business requirements is a key example of this shift in thinking among key decision makers.

As foreshadowed, we’ve also seen a shift in the metrics used. Awareness remains a key measure but there is a clear desire to include measures that isolate the deeper and longer term impact of sponsorship on how consumers feel about the sponsor brand (and the partnership), whether it enhances emotional engagement (and builds equity) as well as whether it impacts on purchase intentions.

Integration of datasets is also an important trend in sponsorship evaluation. Leading sporting organisations are ‘fusing’ customer relationship management (CRM) data with sporting interests, media and lifestyle databases to build a much deeper profile of their supporter bases in order to communicate more effectively with members and add value for sponsors. In a similar vein, another key trend in sponsorship research has been the need to stop thinking of performance measures (such as awareness and logo exposure) in isolation, and take a wider holistic view. It is about placing knowledge of the consumer and the performance of the sponsorship alongside other pieces of information. TV audience profiles, brand exposure, media values, and consumer measures must all complement each other if we are to maximise our understanding of a sponsorship’s performance and realise future opportunities.

Being innovative

Hand in hand with the changes in the nature of sponsorship research are the demands for innovative and cost effective research solutions. The client’s objectives will always shape the research design and methodology used, however online research has become an increasingly popular tool for understanding and evaluating sponsorship performance. Depending on the research, respondents can be sourced in a variety of ways. Most panel providers have robust numbers of sports fans, sporting organisations can also tap into membership lists and pre-recruiting people at sporting events are among the most common ways of generating sample. As everyone in the industry knows, there are strengths and weaknesses to each approach and Sweeney Sports, drawing on 25 years of the Sweeney Sports Report data, has done significant ongoing parallel testing between online and computer assisted telephone interviewing (CATI) approaches. What emerged was interesting, with the results on measures of sporting interest and awareness of sponsors varying between the two approaches. While there isn’t scope here to run through the full set of outcomes of the parallel tests, what these parallel tests did show is that there is a need to be extremely careful in the choice of methodology and wary of any transitions made in on-going evaluation programs. For example, we saw evidence that interest levels in some high profile sports and pastimes, particularly over the summer, were lower online when compared to CATI results, and against historical trends.

Advanced statistical analysis is also playing an important role in improving the sophistication of sponsorship research, particularly when segmenting a membership or fan/follower base. ‘Passion’ has been the buzz word among agencies in recent times and often supporter bases are segmented according to a self-diagnosed level of passion (e.g. on a scale from one to five, how passionate are you about…?). Other approaches combine a number of behavioural and attitudinal measures to develop a much deeper profile of the supporter base. The principle of passion is critical, as highly passionate fans tend to represent high value consumers, be more aware of sponsorship messages and be stronger advocates. Understanding passion (or commitment) has changed the way brands design their activation strategies and how rights holders develop their product.

So what is the key challenge to consider when building a sponsorship research program?

Like most things in marketing, there is no single, all-embracing theory of how sponsorship works. Understanding sponsorship effectiveness should engage multiple approaches to give clients the width of understanding needed to optimise the partnership strategy. Any research should incorporate measures that identify what the target group is passionate about and how they can be engaged to strengthen their experience and ultimately their bond with the brand. The research program should be tailored and focus on the residual impact as much as the take-out, and provide a pathway for enhancing future activation.

Andrew Green joined Sweeney Research in March 2010 to head up Sweeney Sports. Previously, he spent five years in London as a Director of KantarSport (formerly TNS Sport UK). He has worked with a host of major global sporting bodies and sponsors primarily helping them to understand fans’ engagement with sport and advising on the ROI and fit of sponsor activities on brand strategy and vision. His clients have included the Premier League, Barclays, ECB, RFU, Chelsea FC, Vodafone, Heineken, Coca Cola.

Originally published in the February 2011 edition of Research News and reproduced with the permission of the Australian Market and Social Research Society. For more information about AMSRS: