Examine the evolution of sponsorships by dissecting the process behind them
In life, we often think of the logistics behind our actions: “what?”, “where?”, “when?”, “how?”. These questions permeate into the business world and shape our decision making and execution processes:
“What will this activation look like?”
“Where will this existing element live?”
“When is the best time to post in order to maximize engagement?”
“How are we going to effectively show the metrics and reach behind this branding?”
All are important questions that are paramount to properly executing a partnership in its entirety and maximizing the value that it can provide for both sides.
But it often seems like these questions, helpful as they are, often stay etched in stone during the partnership process. Organizations are often working so diligently to execute that the most crucial element can be missed.
When you have your head down, burrowing to accomplish tasks, you need to be able to consistently have the wherewithal to pick your head up.
You need to ask “why” more often.
“Why” is not about the short-game. It is the long foresight of consistently evaluating standards and implemented plans and procedures. Even if it derails objectives and blurs tasks, “why” is the endgame behind every activation, every element, every link in the partnership department chain.
There’s no secret about it. Asking “why”, as well as it’s close confidant “does this align with the intended goals?”, makes things messy. It forces one to pull the layer back and examine each step of the process. Because if a piece of the partnership doesn’t align with the greater goal or objective, why do it? To check the boxes? To showcase agreeability? That’s missing the point.
Better yet, not only does “why (are we doing this and why are we doing it this way)?” need to be held against goals and objectives more often, the goals and objectives themselves require that same philosophical self-questioning as well. They are forever changing and even if larger, big-picture goals and objectives may remain constant (generate more revenue, expand presence, impact the community), the meta-goals within are consistently evolving.
“I believe the why behind partnerships is different for each partner that you're working with. Everyone has their specific goals and objectives they're trying to achieve with a sponsorship but from a higher level, I think there is a common goal. Overall, the big picture is to create programs, branding, content, etc. that makes sense and is mutually beneficial for both parties while remembering to keep the fans top of mind. Partnerships allow teams and brands the opportunity to be creative and innovative but at the end of the day, the more seamless and engaging for the fans, the more successful the partnership.”
- Alexa Schnoor, CX Manager, Zoomph
In order to examine what the current partnership model and required self-questioning looks like, we need to go back in time to take a look at how far partnerships have evolved.
A partnership, in its simplest form, is a more developed and diverse collection of advertising elements. Whereas traditional advertising has often been seen as paying for specific messaging and programming, a partnership takes that premise and integrates “why” within it. Sure a brand’s messaging will still be at the forefront of a partnership. Yet within the sports industry, the norm of mere signs in the outfield or basic naming rights deals are losing ground to multi-faceted, multi-dimensional partnerships that combine elements of community relations, social media, OTT advertising, and more.
And that’s just one potential partnership. This doesn’t include opportunities for brands to partner at live events, community and charity fundraisers, athlete endorsements and NIL rights, esports, and many additional ways to fully achieve the scope of what the partnership is looking to achieve.
Back in the beginnings of partnerships, marketing opportunities were primarily activated through signage and other visual activations. From the rise of the Goodyear Blimp to the dawn of naming rights and Busch Stadium to field signage and kit sponsorships, the main audience of a partnership was limited to those in attendance.
After a bit, teams became even savvier in finding creative ways to cleverly highlight brands. Particularly on the baseball field, marketing executives really took sponsored elements the next level. A golf club foul pole, tinfoil-esque field tarp, The Freeze. These evolutions in visuality emphasize matching partner themes and branding with logical elements. If before was all about playing checkers, this new phase was playing chess.
The next iteration involved organizations bringing the eye-catching “wow!” feeling into different mediums. Further investment into the rise of experiential marketing coupled with integrated social campaigns helped to showcase the versatility of partnerships like never before.
But the most monumental partnership of them all has been the rise of cause marketing. Having the foresight to use your own platform for good, while further amplifying and leveraging another brand’s platform to achieve that common goal, is pretty great. Drawing attention to the environment, food insecurity, and racial injustice are all examples of how a partnership can transcend tradition and be a force for genuine change.
"We aim to partner with global brands that not only align with our values and what we stand for, but are genuinely eager to do more than just leverage our IP. When deciding whether a brand is a good fit, we evaluate what it's doing outside of the marketing scope. Is the brand making an impact within the community? Is it using its platform for the greater good? Are its stakeholders fans of Liquid, esports or the broader gaming space? In order for these relationships to be successful, they often need to put the community first."
-Jake Schwartz, Sales Development at Team Liquid
That is where “why” comes in. Because a partnership doesn’t become one simply by adding to a list of elements. This does not mean that every single partnership has to be an absolute first-of-its-kind industry record-breaking phenomenon. But the partnership brainstorm process more often than not could use an infusion of qualitative thinking.
To use a simile, traditional partnerships feel like you are ordering off of a menu. Modern partnerships feel like you are creating the meal from scratch.
Rather than starting with facts, start with concepts.
Rather than analyzing trends, read the room.
Rather than asking “what?”, ask “why?”
Again, this is not to suggest we throw sound reasoning out the door. Rather, it’s being extremely dialed into organizational values and identifying opportunities within a brand’s scope to align on shared goals.
“The “why” behind partnerships needs to go beyond saying “we have a package of assets that are valued at a certain figure”… if it were that easy then Amazon would be the #1 marketplace for buying/selling sponsorships.
We are consistently looking to build a “win-win” partnership, while of course understanding that every conversation is unique based on the rights-holder we are representing and the brand we are speaking with.
"It always starts with a common hypothesis: “this partnership would make sense”. From there we work hard to communicate the evidence (facts & unique selling points) and generate the right inspiration (creative activations & brand specific solutions). Each conversation will take us down a different path, but ultimately lead towards a common result: a “win-win” partnership for both sides. That’s what makes what we do so fun.”
-Spencer Wolf, Vice President, Marketing Services at Premier Partnerships
As the definition of what a partnership is continues to evolve, so to must the process behind creating them. It will take honest, internal evaluations of organization values and thorough, external examination of brand capabilities. And for when the next blockbuster partnership makes waves, we will exclaim at the “what? And be perplexed by the “how?”.
But we will certainly know the “why?”.
Max Simpson contributes a variety of content to The Sponsorship Space, covering areas such as experiential marketing, activation analysis, and illustrating the "why" behind interesting partnerships.