Bringing Science to Sponsorship Marketing

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By Loretta Di Vita

Within the world of sponsorship marketing, Dr. T. Bettina Cornwell, Professor of Marketing at the University of Oregon’s Lundquist School of Business, is a force of good.  A self-professed number cruncher, she applies science and empiricism to keep things real, ensuring objectivity, transparency, and ethics in corporate sponsorship analysis in the areas of sports, arts and charity.

It’s only fitting then that someone so principled speak of the ideal of “greatness”, as she did in her presentation.

Cornwell believes that many marketers are shooting themselves in the foot—sacrificing greatness—by amassing too many messages and losing focus. “Often times brands have several ideas and audiences and attempt to accomplish too much at the same time. In sponsorship, this can lead to a thin treatment of each component message or worse, confusion,” she explains.

According to Cornwell, successful sponsorships that build brand equity require focus—from inception, through implementation and beyond to measurement. She points to Nike as an example: “They could have spread themselves thin, but they chose to focus on one brand story. As a result, their ‘Find your greatness’ message easily played out across sponsorship, social media, earned media and traditional advertising.”

The sponsorship expert attributes equal importance to the notion of relationship longevity. She envisions the relationship between sponsor and property as a union between equally committed parties, where either side walks away only if it’s “poison.”

She considers a relationship toxic when “the leadership in the organization sees a problem, but doesn’t want to address that problem.” According to her, the same would hold for a brand dabbling in any unethical practice, or tolerating socially reprehensible behaviour—in short, any irreversible negative PR scenario.

Cornwell recommends walking away only in extreme cases, and typically looks for less drastic ways to protect and develop sponsorship image. What tests her patience, though, is “petty politics”: finger-pointing, blame-shifting, and power-tripping. Her antidote to all of this is sensibly restrained: “Stand back a minute and understand why perhaps a volunteer, intern, manager or athlete isn’t representing the brand as they should, and then offer training—support them, lend expertise.” This, in her view, constitutes “not just sponsorship, but partnership.”

Making a distinction between sponsorship and partnership, she defines partnerships as symmetrical power relationships. In the Venn diagram of things, some sponsorships can be partnerships, but only when decision-making power and voice is balanced. She believes that sponsorships characterized by an asymmetrical power dynamic are perfectly valid, but only if the party with more resources (funds, visibility, influence) nurtures the other party and treats it with due respect.

Cornwell knows that creativity keeps the sponsorship wheel spinning. When asked if she’s a creative person, she chuckles: “I have my moments!” She then continues more seriously, “Many brands are not conversing with the people. Ask them—the customers, fans, arts patrons—what they want.” She recommends not only asking questions, but asking the right ones, and targeting the right people—ideally mixing patrons and visitors or season ticket holders and one-time attendees, in order to harvest actual, actionable information that can stoke creative activation.

A dedicated academic and guru in the field, Cornwell is generous with her bountiful knowledge and has written a book on sponsorship marketing. In keeping with her characteristic no-nonsense personal brand, it is simply titled, “Sponsorship in Marketing: Effective Communication through Sports, Arts and Events.” Thanks to a varied academic background—(BA dual major in Social Science and Fine Arts, MBA, and PhD in Cognitive Psychology and Marketing)—and extensive global experience, she brings a wide-angle lens to the subject.

The comprehensive publication is a sort of primer on sponsorship marketing research and is Cornwell’s attempt at “translating academic-speak into something people can read.” In the same unpretentious, clear-minded manner of its author, the book demystifies the interconnectedness of sponsorship marketing players and processes, and anticipates questions on practical application of theory.

Inarguably, sponsorship marketing in the social-media age demands transparency and authenticity. “Sponsorship is a very public sphere,” she says. “In fact, we’re in the process of validating an authenticity measure, that marketers might use to gauge their genuineness in communication.”

Does she find this mounting surveillance intrusive? Not at all. In fact, she welcomes it and says her research is accessible to a wide audience through her website, ResearchGate and Google Scholar.

When asked why it was important for her to participate in the Relevent Conference, she replies that the sponsorship marketing industry—despite the “enormous amount of money in it”—is still in a “fledgling phase and requires organic support.”

“I’m all for new ventures! It is a pleasure to be involved with a quality-minded entrepreneurial group like Elevent,” she enthuses. And Cornwell isn’t just giving lip service; she actually means it.

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