Thoughts on sponsorship

Over the years of being involved with events such as ETCC or vertical connect I have come to gain a better understanding of the interaction between the people running these events and the sponsors. The baseline is that the relationship is not very complex, it boils down to a fair deal in both directions, with both parties treating each other in a fair and respectful fashion.

On the one hand, the event needs a monetary foundation allowing it to take place, for up-front and running costs to be paid and expenses to be covered. On the other hand, sponsor have a right to expect positive exposure, creating positive links between their brand and whatever values the event represents, in the examples above this would be industry best practice and professional skills.

But there are subtleties… I had one epiphany regarding branding a couple of years back. I always assumed that from the sponsor’s point of view the larger the branding with their logo, the happier they would be. Not so, it turns out. I was approached in this matter by the person representing our main event sponsor for ETCC who said that he felt we were over-branding the posters and t-shirts with their logo and that he would much prefer subtle branding.

Err… right?

This is really interesting if you think about it: Branding can be subtle, giving exposure without shoving it in peoples’ faces (yes, this is worth reminding oneself of in a world in which branding is so ubiquitous). It reminded me of something a person in TV production told me about once. They had a contract with an energy drink manufacturer, which stipulated that there shall be no more than one of their logos in any imagery at any time. Yet here is the problem: for racing sports they plaster their drives and riders with their logo, not to mention backdrops with the logo on, so it is nigh on impossible to get an interview with the winner of a race with only one logo in the frame.

Another thing I have learned is that it is ok to push back against sponsors. Sometimes you need to stick to your guns. It is totally legitimate for them to expect a certain return on an investment. But there are limits to that return. They can ask for more, but then they need to give us more for it. In good, stable sponsoring partnerships I have found such demands and counter-demands to be negotiable and resolvable.

But then of course there is always the matter of leverage and balance.

If the sponsor has too much leverage over you, it is going to be hard to push back – say if you only have one sponsor upon whom your whole event depends. In such a situation, you risk sliding down a slippery slope towards becoming something you do not want to be or having to make concessions in areas you do not want to be conceding in. The easiest way to protect yourself from this kind of dilemma is to strive for a diverse, broad-based sponsorship portfolio, with companies with fairly close ties to the industry, who subscribe to the event’s mission statement and have an understanding for what the event is attempting to portray.

After all, surely this is about advancing industry best practice and professional skills – rather than just another extreme sports event?

I think.