Why sponsorship needs to be more mutualistic to be truly effective…

Sometimes sponsorship can come across as cynical attempts by brands to bask in the reflected glory of cultural events.  Although it may raise their profile and improve perceptions, this may not be enough to really deepen brand relationships.

Viewing sponsorship through a mutualistic lens can help overcome this, while also engaging people and enriching society.

Sponsorship has been defined as: “a fee paid to a property, in return for access to its exploitable commercial potential”.   My problem with that definition is that it is too narrowly focused on a financial form of value.  Also, the word ‘exploitable’, implies a one-way relationship and feels more about extracting rather than creating value.  I believe brands and marketeers should take a broader view by being more mutualistic.

Mutuality is all about creating more balanced value exchanges between brands and people.  So for sponsorship, it means not simply settling for benefits by association and instead striving to earn goodwill by creating engaging experiences and giving something back to people.

However, “Goodwill is a matter of will, which cannot be bought, but must be earned” (Meenaghan, 2001).  So brands need to earn goodwill rather than expect to receive it by simply being associated with an event.  In his seminal work, Tony Meenaghan highlights the value of goodwill and how it reduces resistance to commercial messages and improves the likelihood of positive image transfer.

A recent example of mutualistic sponsorship is Budweiser and the FA Cup in 2012.  They are giving 16 grants of £15 000 to non-league clubs.  The more votes fans of those clubs attract, the more likely they are to win the grants.  So the idea lends itself nicely to social media.  I salute the way the brand confronts the potential in-congruence between its American-ness and the English-ness of the FA Cup.  Clearly the relationship creates value beyond the financial bottom line.   Budweiser (and Vizeum) have shown a genuine appreciation of and respect for the FA Cup’s values and the ‘unspoken social contract which commits the sponsor to behave within a formally unspecified but nonetheless real boundaries of behaviour’ (Meenaghan, 2001).  

This is more in line with a Relationship Marketing perspective which also focuses on creating a more balanced value exchange in sponsorship which it describes as:

“the establishment and maintenance of positive, enduring and mutually beneficial relationships between professional sporting organisations and their stakeholders”  (Buehler and Nufer, 2010)

Mutuality isn’t just about creating CSR value; it’s also about CSE value (Corporate Social Entertainment).  An example of this is Heineken‘s Star Player App.  They built on their association with UEFA Champions League by creating an in-game mobile app based on predicting player performance.  Goodwill can be earned through social entertainment as well as social enrichment.

Brands that recognise their responsibility to help society and engage people, are more likely to build mutualistic and therefore productive relationships….