A Brand Roadmap For Optimizing Relationships

In his May 2014 posting, SLRG President Jon Last lays out a critical path of considerations and steps that any marketer must take prior to launching a relationship with a sports property.

Just a few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to address a gathering of marketers from the New York financial services community, about optimizing ROI through sports. While my remarks centered largely on best practices in assessing sponsorship impact, I prefaced those perspectives with a brief look at the potential rewards that can be derived from a well-planned and thought-out sports marketing partnership.

Clearly, we are past the age where the proliferation of these relationships are driven primarily by gut instinct and the personal affinities of management. This prompted me to think further about the necessary elements of the planning and consideration process that any brand, regardless of category, should think about, before jumping into the fray of sports marketing. Here, then, are some important caveats that can lead a brand down the road towards optimizing its sports marketing:

  • Know where you want to go: Have a clear set of objectives behind your support of a property.  Determine to what extent you are looking to generate consumer or constituent awareness and brand perceptions, as well as the potential impact that the sponsorship can have on internal staff and client facing opportunities. Sometimes, it’s enough to provide good will, recognition and event access to various groups of employees, key clients or business partners. But in other circumstances, sponsorship can or needs to provide much more in creating platforms to leverage the equity of a property to build, reframe or reinforce brand awareness and perceptions against a broader consumer target. Fully understanding where you wish to wind up with each of these constituent bases will set you on a proper path towards selecting the right types of affiliations and activation strategies that accrue towards your marketing goals. Determining specific program success criteria upfront, is critically important. In lock step with this is assuring that this criteria is realistic based on prior programs and other sponsorship results and best practices.
  • Know your potential partner … but also know yourself : We need only look back a few weeks to see the rapid mass exodus of brands formerly aligned with the Los Angeles Clippers to understand that another initial consideration is your brand’s tolerance for risk. Within hours of the surfacing of allegations against owner Donald Sterling, multiple sponsors had run for the hills. Fairly or unfairly, when accusations surface around an athlete or sports property, the rule of thumb seems to be that one is presumed guilty until proven innocent. Anyone considering sponsorship needs to be mindful of this phenomenon and determine how they might react to crisis. But self awareness in sports marketing also should include a well-thought-out assessment of the proper alignment of your brand’s goals, vision and desired positioning with that of the property that you are looking to associate with. This can be optimized with both primary and secondary research. The secondary research can include looking at other brands that have forged a relationship with the property. What is their positioning and reputation in the marketplace? Is that the company that you seek to keep and can your brand stand out enough from other sponsors or be lost in the fray? What is the history of the property both in its treatment of previous and current partners? Is there any history of bad behavior or risk of public embarrassment that can negatively impact your brand?
  • You are buying more than a logo—sponsorship is just the first step: Recognize that aligning the brand to a particular property is the equivalent of reserving a cabin on a cruise ship. Once on board, you have to book excursions and premium meals to truly optimize your vacation. For sports marketers, that means one needs to carefully think about and develop specific activation strategies that leverage the sponsorship by creating meaningful and differentiating touch points that resonate with your B to C and/or B to B target audiences while meeting the objectives established for the relationship. Our research has consistently shown that those brands who go beyond simply “buying a logo” create more resonant and effective programs that can significantly move the needle.
  • To recognize and claim victory, you need to keep score: Tracking and measuring the performance of the program against the specific success criteria established is another important element to plan, before a program begins.  This should include a well-thought-out and customized program of marketing research that is carefully designed to avoid numerous pitfalls. I’ve used this space quite frequently to call out some of the best practices and land mines of poorly conceived research. A professionally designed research program is carefully crafted to avoid useless feedback derived through convenience samples and/or direct and leading survey questions. Good research should ideally build in the best elements of brand blind data collection and representative sampling. Experimental design components should include measurement of awareness and message alignment against unexposed vs exposed populations, as well as consideration of competitive context.