Sponsorship came into its own about 40 years ago. It had existed for decades in various forms—Coca-Cola began supporting the U.S. Olympic team in the ‘20s, Winston put sports marketing top of mind for many when it first titled NASCAR’s top series in the ‘70s—but only emerged as a widely recognized form of marketing and promotions when a broad range of brands took up the practice in the early-to-mid ‘80s.
It was at that time that the now generally accepted definition of sponsorship was put forth by Tony Meenaghan, marketing professor at University College Dublin, and refined by Lesa Ukman at IEG. It reads: “A cash and/or in-kind fee paid to a property (typically in sports, arts, entertainment or causes) in return for access to the exploitable commercial potential associated with that property.”
On one hand, that remains an accurate depiction of the nature of the relationship between sponsor and rights holder. It is possible to be a sponsor and take advantage of a property’s reach, image, IP, and other attributes as the definition suggests. When we think of the biggest sponsorship platforms—FIFA World Cup, the Olympics, NFL, etc.—that is often what those organizations’ partners are doing.
But it doesn’t account for the key distinction between sponsorship and other forms of marketing, namely that when it works best it is because the target audience recognizes the corporate partner as playing an essential role, whether in bringing an event to the public, enhancing the audience/fan experience, providing critical funding for operations, etc.
That unique quality should be added to the definition to make clear that while sponsorship can mean simply associating with a popular property to attract attention and generate interest, its higher purpose and value is in partnering with rights holders and audiences to not just tap into fandom and passion, but substantially contribute to it.
It’s probably wishful thinking, but changing the definition of sponsorship might even help to eradicate the impression that many consumers—and unfortunately a few marketers—have that sponsorship equals plastering a brand on a sign, jersey or piece of content.
That was never the intent. “Exploitable commercial potential” was meant to signal smart activation, not slapping logos on all available inventory.
Since there is no official place of record to enshrine a new definition of sponsorship, it will be up to all of us who understand the power of the medium to simply make sure that when we are asked to define it, we add the factors that make it truly special.