Sponsorship Lessons from Europe’s Centre of Excellence!

By Sarah O’Connor, Head of Sports Marketing & Sponsorship at WH

Having been involved in leveraging sponsorship to make brands matter for almost 50 years, everyone in Wilson Hartnell was delighted to see Ireland’s sponsorship credentials reaffirmed last week in the near dominance of Irish entries on the shortlist of the European Sponsorship Associations annual awards. For our part, it is fantastic to see work by WH clients AIB, Electric Ireland, Guinness and Along Came A Spider (20×20) recognised amongst what appears to be one of the most competitive years in recent times.

Sponsorship, amplified strategically, is a brilliant brand building tool. This, along with demonstrable commercial return, no doubt underpinned many of these entries and contributed to the success rate. It is this understanding of sponsorship as a tool in the marketing mix, combined with acumen in activation that has seen Ireland’s marketing community shine on the European stage.

This acumen was on display at the Marketing Institute and Onside annual gathering of the sponsorship community at the “Who Won Sponsorship” series at the Aviva Stadium on November 20th. WH was delighted to support the event for the third year in a row and with eyes and ears open, were on hand to pick up some lessons for consideration by brands and rights holders alike:

  1. Sponsoring the fans but no longer just the fans

The best sponsorships are reflective of the current consumer environment. In a world where we are continually pressed to do more with the same or less, it is no surprise that this is impacting sponsorship too. Once seen as a way of making a brand matter to the fans of the sponsored property, now business and marketers keen to maximise the return on investment, are also looking to engage those who would typically not be classed as true fans, the flirts. No doubt this is fueling both the stretching of the boundaries of the more traditional properties such as AIB’s Journey to Croker in 2017 with Jeff Stelling and Kris Kamara in connection with their sponsorship of the GAA All Ireland Football Championship, Vodafone’s Ireland’s Ball as part of their sponsorship of the Irish men’s Rugby team as well as the rise of the purpose driven campaigns such as 20×20 from Along Came A Spider and Guinness’s Union Gates.

2. Think differently

Brands who have sponsored properties that as recently as five years were seen as less appealing are enjoying great success, be it Electric Ireland and the Higher Education GAA Championships, Lidl and the LGFA, or Aldi and its support of primary school rugby through Play Rugby. Expect to see this list continue to grow as, for example, Tesco begins to activate its sponsorship of Swim Ireland. Embracing this challenge is also key for rights holders as outlined by UEFA’s Kayleigh Grieve who spoke of the positive effect for UEFA of unbundling its men’s and women’s rights. This has delivered much needed investment into the women’s game but no doubt de-risked reliance on one brand from a particular sector with commercial relationships in place with Visa and Mastercard, Adidas and Nike. Who would have thought it possible! Smart thinking too in building in player rights into the contracts on the female side of the game ensuring a win win approach for the athletes and indeed, the sponsor, saving them costs by ensuring commercially relevant and vital talent access come with the asset.

3. Mattering over Time

At Wilson Hartnell, in devising strategic sponsorships activation campaigns, we challenge ourselves to look across the time horizons of now, every quarter and years to come. It is one of sponsorships great strengths that it is sufficiently agile to adapt and flex to the changing consumer environment no matter if the underlying asset remains the same.  We are privileged to work with clients as part of their inter-agency teams who are masters at this. Be it Electric Ireland’s #ThisIsMajor, as relevant today as it first launched seven years ago and fresh impetus and broader shoulders with the creation in 2017 of the Minor Star Awards. AIB and Guinness are two other Irish brands who invest in sponsorship for the short, medium and long term benefits it brings and continues to have on their brands and ultimately business. No surprise then to see them emerge respectively as the industry professionals and public’s sponsorship of the decade!

With two thirds of Irish consumers saying they believe sponsorship is a better way than advertising to connect, we are continuously challenging ourselves to figure out how best to ensure the brands we work with remain as successful with their sponsorships whether sport, entertainment or culture in the decades to come. Front of mind for us is ensuring that the sponsorship assets they invest in build both brand equity and deliver measurable commercial returns.

With Dublin emerging as Europe’s sponsorship centre of excellence, we are hopeful too that we may begin over these next ten years to see some European and global sponsorship strategies being brought to life from Ireland. For in a discipline that requires acute understanding of the cultural conversation of the day, our little island, whilst sitting at the edge of Europe, has genuine links right across the globe. We are well placed to do so. Here’s hoping that all of Ireland’s sponsorship success at a European level may catch the eye in some of these regional marketing hubs. Based on the recent track record of success in delivering clear and measured business impact, we won’t disappoint.