Practical Applications of Sponsorship Research for Brands and Properties
Bettina Cornwell is the leading academic researcher in the field of sponsorship and author of the book Sponsorship in Marketing. In her podcast conversation with host Jim Andrews, she shares findings from her research into how and why sponsorship works (or doesn’t).
Among the insights discussed: authenticity is more important than fit and fans don’t quickly forget previous sponsors, so new partners must put in the work to overcome those long memories. Below are edited highlights of the conversation.
Jim: How did you choose sponsorship as your field of study?
Bettina: I was studying communications and miscommunications in advertising and I went to a tennis event and the vice president for North America for Volvo, which was the title sponsor of the ATP Tour at the time said the company was interested in measuring its sponsorship and I thought, “I’d like to know how this is working too!”
Jim: There’s a question that you and I have discussed in different ways over the years, and that is: For the practitioners out there—the sponsors and the rights holders and the agencies who have so much on their plates and also have their own market research and fan analytics to guide them—why should they pay attention to the research that you and your colleagues in academia are doing?
Bettina: Academics are a curious lot in the sense that part of their job description is doing research on topics of interest to them and topics that are relevant to business. They ask questions, they make observations, they produce research that is often unfunded and they produce articles that are at times, I’ll admit, a bit of a slog to read, but are unbiased, third-party contributors.
You can find out about research findings early and implement them and be a first mover, or at least have a new strategy perspective. The truth of the matter is that eventually academic research gets into mainstream business. The roots are cut off and it becomes business acumen. For example, the funnel model and all its reincarnations throughout the years is from a ‘60s paper. It’s ancient!
Brand equity is also an academic construct that was developed by David Aaker. Eventually these sorts of things get into the business world, but if you want to be ahead of the game, you might want to learn about them early on.
Jim: So we’ve made the case that this research is important and can help people do their jobs better. Practically speaking, if these insights are not on professionals’ radar screens because they are buried in a paper in an academic journal, do you see a way to forge better links between academia and practitioners? To distill these vital insights and information in a way that will be useful?
Bettina: This is where the academics fall short—in distilling or translating their findings into easy-to-digest pieces. In the academic world, there is not much of a reward for translation pieces. That academic article is often the end of the story.
There is some pressure to do more of that, and some people are doing it, but generally speaking, writing that additional paper that would go somewhere to be quickly accessed, or even just to put it online, takes extra effort and is not what your original mission is.
That said, I’m keen to build bridges and I think we should do more of that. This conversation today is an opportunity. The Marketing Science Institute asks managers in industry what are the top things they would like to see in terms of research. The responses guide a lot of research papers that are then utilized by top companies that are part of MSI. We could be doing something like that: “What is it that you want to know? What keeps you up at night?” Tell the academics and they might work on it.
Jim: We’ve been talking in generalities, but I’m really interested in hearing about what you have been working on recently, so can you share some highlights from some of your latest projects?
Bettina: Let’s start with a broad-based study. We conducted a meta-analytic review, which is a study of studies. The set of studies we were considering were studies on sports sponsorship announcements and do those announcements by companies that they are going to spend a lot of money on a sports sponsorship influence the stock price.
We found 34 studies of that type. The process is not just to review them or summarize them, but to go back and take their findings statistically as new research. That gives you a huge pool you would not have had in a single paper. You have information about the Olympics, or the NFL, or some other pro sport, etc. coming together into one big study.
With studies of these announcement “events,” you typically see a pre-window, a day-of window and a follow-on window. There were mixed findings across the 34 studies. Sometimes the announcement seemed to be a super-important factor in generating positive returns and in other instances, not so much, and there were a few where the impact was negative.
But through the meta-analysis, we were able to show a statistically significant positive impact on the stock price happened in the pre-window. Just before the announcement, the stock price starts to go up. With so many people involved in the sponsorship decision, probably others started to learn about it and the stock price started to go up indicating this was considered a good investment for this firm.
Jim: You do such a great job of keeping tabs on what brands are doing in sponsorship, I’m wondering if there is a practice that you see where, knowing what you know through all your research, you say, “I’m surprised they are still doing this?”
Bettina: My top candidate would be the role of fit or congruence in sponsorship. Admittedly, early studies showed that if you matched things went better for you. You have better outcomes, people remember it, etc.
But these days, with so much sponsorship happening, if you fit well with an event so do all your competitors and it’s confusing. Those involved in the sports ecosystem are awash with brands in their minds. You need to have something more going on than just fit.
Besides, we have a huge number of B2B brands and different types of companies engaged in sponsorship for different reasons, so we have to think about how they fit and match, but that is not the construct of interest. In my opinion, and we have shown this empirically, it’s really about authenticity.
In another study of mine, we considered a fit measure compared to an authenticity measure. We can show that authenticity is a better measure of compatibility between a sponsoring brand and a property.
What people want is a genuine relationship. They don’t want advertising stuck on that doesn’t have any relationship to the team or event. They want to know how you have this relationship, what is the history, what is the meaning that you share.
Jim: Can you speak more about what were the authenticity factors that you studied? Especially if there isn’t a congruent connection that the audience can automatically see, are there specific steps that sponsors can take to demonstrate authenticity?
Bettina: Authenticity will change over time. In general, insurance companies don’t really match or fit with sports properties, but when they have been working with a group for so long, they become part of the ecosystem. And if they communicate about their shared values and about the history of the partners working together, they can develop authenticity.
Jim: That would seem to bolster the idea that it takes a while for a sponsorship to be successful and start earning a return on investment in part because people have become familiar and comfortable with it.
Bettina: Absolutely. Moreover, if you are taking over a sponsorship from a direct competitor, other academic research shows that they are going to be remembered not only for the first six months or year, but for a very long time. If they have developed what I call shared brand equity, you must work very hard to be unique. Using the luxury autos in tennis example, you can’t just rebadge their symbol in the net with yours. That just doesn’t work. You need to have something other than fit. You need to have an authentic link that you articulate.
Jim: I’m sure this is true of nearly every field, but there are plenty of pre-conceived notions and “conventional wisdom” that permeates the sports marketing and sponsorship business. In your work and others’ you are familiar with, do you have any examples where studies have busted any of our long-held myths?
Bettina: There is something that either industry doesn’t want to hear or isn’t giving adequate weight to the fact that relationships established persist. And if you are not directly establishing new linkages in the mind, you are advertising for your competitor.
Even across categories, you still will see what academics call “spontaneous recovery” of the previous sponsor for years. Whether you overcome their established shared brand equity and build your own with that property will depend on what you do, how authentic you are and what activations you utilize.
It keeps happening that people say, “The sponsorship didn’t turn out as well this first year as we expected.” That’s probably because you have been working for your competitor for a year. Especially if that previous sponsor was there for six, eight or ten years.
Jim: You are well-known for spotting trends and synthesizing different actions into a collective narrative of what’s happening in sponsorship. Can you share what you think are some of the things we should all be keeping an eye on when it comes to the intersection of brands and properties?
Bettina: Trends can vary quite a bit from country to country. The one over-arching trend that we can see is the ascendance of women’s sports and women in sport.
If you dig deeper, that trend is really part of a larger trend that is worldwide and that is the emphasis on diversity, equity and inclusion, as well as corporate social responsibility. In fact, a recent Nielsen report discusses that managers are keen to emphasize DEI, environmental protections and CSR across the globe. It’s not just a U.S. phenomenon. One of the ways that manifests is in the support of women’s sports and pay equality.
Women’s sports used to be a little add-on to show you were doing something good, but now it’s becoming the central story in a more mature and very appealing way. They are being recognized for the athletes they are and getting the better conditions that they deserve.
Jim: Is there anything else we should let brands or rights holders know from what you are seeing in recent research?
Bettina: A trend you certainly see in the U.K. and continental Europe is frustration with international sponsors. People are almost desperate for local sponsors to step in. They are frustrated with everything being sold internationally, such as all the football shirt sponsorship that go abroad.
That relates to work we did not so long ago with colleagues from Germany where we found that international sponsors are often seen as more calculative. So if they want to come into a country, they need to build authenticity instead of coming in and appearing to be all about advertising.
The other trend that we are looking at is the excitement around technology, virtual and augmented reality and the metaverse. It is so exciting in terms of activation, but the true technological innovation permeating sponsorship is AI in measurement and coming closer to a real understanding of the value of sponsorship for brands.
We used to have advertising equivalency, and then there was advertising equivalency with clear and in-focus, and now we have advertising equivalency with a quality measure that is then discounted in the algorithm that really gets you close to what you are buying. We have not been there in the same way before.
The behind-the-scenes in measurement is really transforming.