Maximizing Special Events and Sponsorships

Events and Sponsorships – Leveraging the Brand Strategy

This is where you can have a lot of fun in integrated marketing communication. The brand strategy you want to leverage with events and sponsorships is associative imagery.  It literally elevates brand communication from a message to an experience. What you are trying to do with associative imagery is to capture the user experience of related activity and associate it with your brand in the hearts and minds of the customer. This is all about linking context and state of mind to the brand experience. Think of how successfully McDonald’s and Disney (and now Nintendo) have leveraged each other’s brand equity to benefit their own brands. McDonald’s virtually owns children in the fast-food business with their Happy Meal concepts. The Nintendo tie-in (with characters and games included in the Happy Meal) is the kids’ incentive that keeps Moms coming back again and again.   

Sponsoring events to create purchase intent

Events are a great opportunity to create purchase intent and hold the customer all the way into the selling environment and the cash register. In fact, some of the most efficient special events break through the actual walls and move from a purchase intent activity to a direct purchase driver inside the store itself. Knorr soups create purchase intent followed with purchase behavior motivator through their successful cooking events in-store. Imagine how tough it would be to sell the competitor (Maggi) in that store on that day – and on subsequent days if the event is as successful in creating purchase intent, purchase behavior, and brand loyalty as it has the potential to do. 

Most events are conducted outside the selling environment, but they are still very effective brand communication tools when executed properly because they involve the customer in the brand experience. At Coca-Cola, we recognized a factor that made experiential communications even more important in Central and Eastern Europe than in western markets – the perceived lack of credibility of the media in the region. We turned to special events and activities as one of the most persuasive tools in our communication arsenal. We found that we could involve the consumer in a brand experience quite efficiently with active engagement programs such as the Coca-Cola Beach House and the Fanta Fun Taxis.

The summer-long Coca-Cola Beach House became an event that resulted in over 20% of all teenagers in Hungary visiting each year, while a total of 80% watched or heard about it on TV, online, in print, and over the radio. They believe what they see and hear about Coca-Cola and summer fun because they have experienced it themselves at some point, or have friends who have been there and told them all about it – word-of-mouth and advocacy.

One thing, don’t get carried away

One problem with most successful events is that you can get carried away with them just as with any other medium. The advertising guy tends to fantasize about being the next Spielberg when he is shooting your ice cream ad, and the client starts thinking he has created the next Disneyland with his special event property. Leave the film work to Spielberg and the theme parks to Disney. In both cases, your role is to create an involving brand experience – that’s it, and only it.

At one point during the multi-year Coca-Cola Beach House event, the director of the event agency, Peter Bajnogel, was showing me the improvements for the coming year. He mentioned that he was cutting back the sandy area to make more room for more brand experiential activities. It was my idea originally to put sand at the Beach House and I was quite proud of how well it had been received. Naturally, I protested that who goes to the Coca-Cola Beach House really like the sand. He calmly asked me if my intention is to have people lie around enjoying the sand or to use the space more efficiently so that we extend the Coca-Cola experience to a larger number of people through more efficient turnover events that involve and engage a greater number of people. He got it completely and pulled me back in from the land of Mickey Mouse. 

Connect your brand with the right experience

Most companies can’t afford to create their own event, so they tie in via sponsorship to someone else’s pre-packaged event. This is a dangerous, but sometimes, a necessary path. The first thing you should know is that the customer will not thank you for sponsoring their favorite event or team when you put your name on it – in fact, they will usually resent it. They expect those big companies and big brands will sponsor big events, and if they are anything more than indifferent about it, they may even start to wonder if that is why your brand costs them so much.

Local brands sponsoring local events are much more likely to be appreciated and rewarded by customers.  The truth is that many sponsorships are more about senior executive egos than effective and efficient brand strategies. There is associative imagery at work, but unfortunately, it is the image of the executive who is trying to benefit from the association with a high-profile sporting or entertainment event, rather than being involved and meaningful to the customers of the brand. Just like the customer’s ultimate motivation in buying your products, a lot of executives buy sponsorship rights for emotional reasons and then look for rational reasons to support that decision.

Meaningful sponsorships

Responsible managers try to connect the event to their brand in a meaningful way. The ego thing is unfortunate because there are effective sponsorship activities and special events that will benefit your brand – just make sure you are in that camp. To sponsor salesmen out there – you need to work harder at building a lasting brand relationship that makes sense for your event if you want to keep getting sponsor funding. 

Great sponsorships are all about tying the brand to the event experience and then activating it at the point of purchase. Budweiser who got it wrong for years with their Super Bowl ads featuring croaking frogs finally connected to football and the fan experience in recent years with their superstition campaign and then even better with their local market activation on packages linked to the hometown team. 

Budweiser and SuperBowl events                                                              

The message in both ads above may seem meaningless to outsiders, but Indianapolis Colts and Arizona Cardinal fans get it.  And that’s the point. 

Understand and engage with the audience

The right brand strategy is to connect to the sponsored event or team in a real and meaningful way. Vodafone’s decision to sponsor a traffic helicopter in one market to communicate the convenience and benefits of being connected no matter where you are makes sense to me. Activate the sponsorship by engaging the customer in brand proposition beyond the logo. Demonstrate within the activities around the event that you not only understand the customer’s involvement with the event, you share it. The beer brand isn’t the point of the football match, but it is a part of the experience. What is crucially important is how the beer brand fits into and becomes a part of the fan’s overall football experience. Your job if you are a brand manager for a beer is to understand that experience, and to activate it in a meaningful way that involves your customer.   

Steinlager, the New Zeeland beer, did a wonderful job of connecting its brand to the Rugby World Cup experience even though Heineken had purchased the sponsoring rights. Steinlager brought back their iconic white can from the past as a good luck symbol tied to the last time New Zeeland won the World Cup in hopes they would then win it again.   

That the New Zeeland rugby team cooperated by winning the cup on their home turf made a good promotion all the better. 

Involve customers, don’t oversell

An important lesson in executing a successful event is that when you have delivered a superior brand experience, don’t blow it up by bringing the customer back down to the level of a simple brand advertisement. Involve customers in the brand and don’t worry about the logo. If you involve them properly, they will remember your brand. Don’t introduce skepticism into the experience by overselling – be subtle.

The other common event mistake is logo obsession based on the misguided thinking that brand awareness is relevant. It isn’t. I didn’t say awareness is unimportant – just irrelevant. The brand name becomes relevant only when you tie it to some customer benefit, and most logos do not accomplish this on their own.  How many interviews with a player or coach after a game have you seen that has them standing in front of a wall decorated with the top sponsor’s logos.  That these logos in the background can somehow drive purchase intent is a stretch. Visit your local sports field or arena and you can see the clutter of way too many brands fighting for the attention of the customer. 

Sponsorships on the baseball stadium

It will never be enough to tell the customer that you are part of the experience with sponsorship rights, or even to show them with your logo plastered all over the players and the event. You must involve the customer emotionally which is what both Steinlager and Budweiser did.  Confucius got it right over two thousand years ago: 

Tell them and they will forget. 

Show them and they will remember. 

Involve them and they will understand. 


Potential for event ownability

Ownability is a key component in any successful sponsorship or event. I am not talking about ownership from a contractual standpoint – that’s for the lawyers to work out. Ownership is what you should be seeking based on the event’s emotional and functional connection to your brand’s Motivational Hierarchy.  A quick acid test to determine the level of potential ownership is to ask yourself if your competitor could participate in the same activity.  Assuming your brand positioning is meaningful, deliverable, and DEFENDABLE, and the activity fits with your brand strategy, then it would obviously not work as effectively for the competition.  And likewise, for the events, they are effectively tied into.   

When considering brand partnerships, look at all the possibilities in the market, and then compare the functional and emotional benefits of the activity that you want to connect with to create a meaningful brand experience for your customers.   

Ownability comes from a deep understanding of your brand’s architecture as well as the architecture of the event or activity you are wanting to associate with. Find the viable links – the aspects and experiences that drive the emotional appeal – and then build your marketing strategy around those connections.

Aligning the Brand and Event Experience

I’ve always found it helpful to create a very basic Motivational Hierarchy of the proposed property and then compare it to the brand’s Motivational Hierarchy.  Shown below are the hierarchies for Coke and Lake Balaton in Hungary. As you can see, the connections are quite significant so we determined that the Balaton was a great opportunity to build local relevance that Coca-Cola is an integral part of a perfect Hungarian summer.  

  Sponsorships aligned with the events experience

To form a mutually beneficial partnership, start thinking in terms of owning a brand property, rather than a sponsorship. The word property conveys the sense and responsibility of a business asset. Sponsorship is just some place to put your logo. Understand and connect with something that has special significance and to the customer that can be accessed to drive purchase intent through a viable and meaningful link with the Motivational Hierarchy of your brand.  Remember, the objective is to involve the customer in a brand experience. Choose what and how you associate your brand very carefully.  Identify the deep connections that can last, or walk away.

Get the Right People for the Job

It used to be that you would select an agency and then work with them to develop creative appropriate to the media you choose together with the creative agency. However, the media world has changed in scope and complexity to the point that the creative skills required to develop creative materials for one medium are significantly different than another. Online media and digital communications have only amplified this creative capability challenge.  Determine the touchpoints you want to leverage to engage the customer and then look for creative capabilities that are specifically qualified and experienced in that medium. 

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