SBJ/May 2-8, 2011/Opinion

B-to-B companies make sports sponsorships work for them

List the companies you think of when I say “corporate sponsorship.” Budweiser, Visa, McDonald’s? My guess is your choices were influenced by the recent commercials you have seen for these brands on broadcasts of the Super Bowl, college sports or other major telecasts. They are consumer-based companies leveraging sports to build awareness, drive differentiation and create activation at retail.

But a new day is dawning as business-to-business companies throw their hats into the ring. Recently, I watched the PGA Tour’s Waste Management Phoenix Open; spent time at Olympic sponsorship meetings with GE, Dow Chemical and Deloitte; and marveled at the incredible season that Manchester United is having as its players wear the Aon brand on their shirts.

As media fractionalizes and sponsorship costs escalate, there seems to be a drive toward deeper sponsorship engagement. This has motivated consumer companies to look beyond awareness measures to incorporate such elements as employee involvement, business client engagement and internal communication into their sponsorship mix. In striving for the Holy Grail — ROI — they have started to adopt the very parts of the marketing mix that B-to-B companies have been doing all along.

“We have seen a move towards developing new and exciting ways to reach customers, build relationships, enhance sales approaches — and it is clear that sponsorships are helping many B-to-B companies accomplish this,” said Gary Slack, chairman of the Business Marketing Association.

I learned my lesson in 1996 in Atlanta. While at the U.S. Olympic Committee, I was once given the task of calling the president of a B-to-B-focused financial services company to apologize that The Wall Street Journal had just done a story on Olympic sponsor awareness and his company had been recognized by less that 1 percent of the survey. To my amazement, he laughed and told me, “As long as it is the right 1 percent, I am delighted.”

He explained to me how they were using the sponsorship as a business brand-building initiative that had led to enormous gains in company perception among potential clients, and that his sales incentives were assuring him a three-times return on his Olympic sponsorship. No ads, no consumer promotions, just solid marketing focused on measurable business results.

Now, 15 years later I am impressed with GE’s plans to generate a positive ROI by selling equipment to organizers and sponsors at each Olympic Games. And I was intrigued that Waste Management’s golf event website linked to a business campaign offering case studies on how it has helped companies such as BMW and Alcoa to “think green.” In addition, I have had the chance to see Deloitte develop programs that have led to 76 percent of its personnel believing the company’s USOC sponsorship enhances its brand. I have seen the company deliver on a tour that brings Olympic and Paralympic stars to speak at campuses, a program that 98 percent of students who attended said was an effective recruiting tool.

“There is no doubt that we have focused our Olympic engagement on achieving measured results in four key areas: Our people, talent recruiting, client focus and global branding,” said Doug Bade, Deloitte Consulting’s lead client service partner for the USOC. “To date, this disciplined approach has yielded strong results.”

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An Aon exec says its metrics show the $120M Man U deal is proving to be a wise investment.
Quite possibly the largest business sponsorship now in execution is the Aon sponsorship of Manchester United. Reported at a price of about $120 million over four years, the sponsorship would at first blush look exorbitant for a B-to-B brand. However, with more than 300 million Man U fans worldwide and a weekly audience of 88 million viewers watching every game, Aon’s brand (which is more prominent on the jerseys than the team’s logo) has moved to the forefront for the company’s customers and potential customers around the globe.

“We chose to engage with Manchester United to achieve three objectives: Unite the company, maximize the efficiency of marketing spending and generate new business,” said Phil Clement, global chief marketing and communications officer for Aon. “In all three areas we have put metrics in place, and initial results show we have made a wise investment.”

Moving forward, IEG estimates that U.S. sponsorship spending in 2011 will increase 5.9 percent overall, to $18.2 billion. Sports will continue to be the largest segment and is projected to increase 6.1 percent. While there is no doubt that the spending will continue to be dominated by the household consumer brands that have driven the category for years, look for a continuing trend as B-to-B companies see sports sponsorships as a way to differentiate their brand, motivate their employees and engage their clients.

Gordon Kane (victorysm@comcast.net) is the founder of Victory Sports Marketing and has consulted for companies such as Deloitte and Aon on sponsorship maximization.

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